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De Kooning's Brain: Q&A with Nobel-Winning Neuroscientist, Eric Kandel

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Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist, Eric Kandel, is also an avid art lover, and has written extensively on art and the brain. Photo by Chris Willcox



Eric Kandel, Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist, is also a longtime lover of art. Christie's talked with Dr. Kandel about Willem de Kooning's genius ahead of an online auction of
33 of de Kooning's works on paper (June 5-19)--drawn, appropriately, from the estate of de Kooning's therapist.

Like many of the Abstract Expressionist artists of his generation, de Kooning relied heavily on instinct to create his dense, exploratory paintings (go here for a video of de Kooning at work in his studio). But
unlike his contemporary Jackson Pollock--whose paintings were thoroughly abstract--de Kooning often based his work on recognizable subjects. In the late
1980s, de Kooning battled Alzheimer's disease. Still he continued painting. For the second in a series of Q&As about de Kooning, Kandel offers insights into the mind and gift of an
artist who never stopped making art.


AC: When Abstract Expresionism and de Kooning come up, we tend to use words like instinct, impulse, gut, and emotion. Is this what's on the canvas?

EK: There are unconscious mental processes in figurative art as well as in abstract art. I would say unlike [Jackson] Pollock, who's more splattering
things on the canvas in sort of an instinctive fashion, de Kooning is more controlled, often has figurative elements in the painting.

He's a little bit like Picasso but Picasso couldn't go beyond a certain point, felt that figuration was central to painting. De Kooning is absolutely
capable and willing to go abstract. He just likes to go back and forth between the two.

What's going on in de Kooning's brain while he's creating?

We're guessing, but unconscious mental processes have less of a sense of time and order. They're more fragmented and disorganized. Freud used to describe
it as the language of the id, which is a primary process, with very little organization between things.

The language of the ego, which is a secondary process, is organized in time and place and is very logical. And I think you see those two things moving very
nicely from one to the other in de Kooning.

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Willem de Kooning, Untitled (circa 1960s), oil on paper



Yes, well there are some critics and art historians who say there are some kinds of artists--Titian, for example--who could never have painted the way
they did had they developed Alzheimer's.

I don't think that's true at all.

Do tell.

Well this is why I think it's difficult to follow the line of logic you made previously. Let me give you a little background on memory. A memory has two
forms, called implicit and explicit. Implicit is a memory for motor-perceptual skills. And explicit is a memory for people, places and objects. When I ask
you about your memory, you normally think of explicit memory.

But the fact is you have a lot of memories that are implicit. And implicit memories don't require conscious effort to recall. Explicit do. So, for example,
when you learn how to ride a bicycle, you tell yourself "put your left foot forward, put your right foot forward." But once you've learned how to do it,
you don't have to talk to yourself about it. If you begin to talk to yourself, you'll fall off the bicycle.

This holds for many, many things. So, when you develop Alzheimer's disease, you for the longest time primarily compromise explicit memory storage. You're
perfectly capable of eating, you're perfectly capable to some degree of driving, and you're perfectly capable of doing things that you've become highly
accustomed to doing. Titian became so familiar with his forms, he probably could continue to paint.


But, if you're Titian, isn't there a certain amount of explicit memory involved--the myths you're depicting, the memory of a woman's face that you want
to incorporate? It's more than just execution of style, right?

You make a good point, which I hadn't thought of. The simplicity of de Kooning's art--particularly at the end, it became even more simple--may be easier to
do.

Chuck Close, who knew him, commented that when de Kooning would go [into] the studio, it was like he was a different person. There was a change in style as
he moved from one space to another. This is while he had Alzheimer's.

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Willem de Kooning, Untitled (circa 1960s), charcoal on vellum



Some say de Kooning's ability to keep creating at such a high level with advanced Alzheimer's is further evidence of his immanent genius. What do you
think?

s true that the kind of style, particularly at the end of his life, didn't require a lot of historical reference, and therefore it didn't require the
memory that Titian's work might have. But it still required a memory of lines and how the project, and a sense of geometry.


You've reminded me of an Oliver Sacks lecture I watched recently: He was talking about music's ability to retrieve a person's sense of self or identity
in an Alzheimer's patient who had other wise lost it. They hear a song and they start to retrieve memories--

Many people have said that, yes.


Do you think that art functions in the same way? I wonder if creating art wasn't a means for de Kooning to retrieve some essential part of himself that
otherwise was lost?

I think that's wonderful. I think it's very likely to be true.

To see the latest about Christie's online auctions, go to onlineonly.christies.com