Wednesday, February 12, 2014

De Kooning's Alzheimer's; My Alzheimer's Drawing

The title of this oil pastel drawing is "End of Life".  When I was designing it I didn't know what it was about, story wise.  And I didn't know what I was doing, nor what I was drawing, nor why why I was drawing it.  For a while there, I was really disturbed by what I was making. The violence and darkness of the subject matter didn't bother me.  I was disturbed by internal variations in my normal sensation of creative flow.  In this drawing, somehow, my creative process was less satisfactory.

However, its final phase, the story is very straight forward and clear.  The drawing is a variation on the Greek myth of the three fates.  The three fates were women who dealt with string and the timing of one's life.  One Fate to spin the string, one Fate to measure the string, and one  Fate to cut the string.  So a person's lifeline was created, you lived it out, and when a Fate cut the string, you died.  The black string in "End of Life" is perhaps less about measurement and more about the assent from earth into the afterlife.  A journey is taking place.  A transference.  Movement from the Earthly plane (why, there's green grass on the ground) to a more celestial plane (the cart is flying through the blue sky).  Note the baby saint, or Jesus, in the womb of the winged Billy Goat.  Is it a symbol of rebirth?  Is it a symbol of the destination of Heaven?  Is it a symbol of a plane of existence that I'm at loss to depict in a drawing?  I don't know, but somehow, I get a good feeling of hope from my pregnant, cart hauling, aimed upward, winged Billy Goat.  He isn't the goat that is associated with the Devil, no way.  Maybe its my own personal spin on drawing an angel.  An animal angel.

Where there is flesh of the Godly Fates I used a lot of pink tones.  Where there is flesh of those that have died, I have used tones of green and blue and brown.

I asked my husband, "Why are their holes in the women's breasts?"  and without hesitation he replied "Because they lack the milk of human kindness."

But my husband does not understand why all the dead people's faces have unhappy looks on them.  "Sometimes you say you want to die" he said to me.  "If you want to die, shouldn't the faces in death be happy?  Because you got what you want?"  He continued on this line of thought.  "I think because the faces look unhappy, you really don't want to die, even when you say so."

I got a notion that repeated itself to me while planing and executing this drawing.  I kept thinking that the drawing was different from preceding work.  And that the difference was because I was showing early stages of Alzheimer's.

Now, reality check.  Do I have any sort of problems with my memory?  No, absolutely not.  Still, I kept telling my husband, like a broken needle on a record, "It feels like I have Alzheimer's when I draw."  Do I know anyone with Alzheimer's?  No.  But what I was trying to express, I think, was that my thoughts felt blocked and slowed down.  Schizophrenia is a type of dementia, but I wanted to say that while making this art I felt like I had dementia on top of dementia.   Creative flow felt altered, and not in a good way.  It was my husband who pointed out to me that during the Christmas season I had gone up, a tiny bit, on my antipsychotic medication.  Just one extra 20mg pill a night.  The holiday time is a former time of hospitalization.  Its hard to remember, but I think I've had two hospitalizations right before Christmas.  So its a kinda a danger zone.  And since I was doing so well on the higher dose of medication I just kept on taking the increased dose.  More medication all throughout January.  During the planing and execution of this drawing. "Your probably really sensitive to how the medication alters your creativity." My husband said to me.  "It must be that you don't like the way the medication affects your creativity."

I have seen art transformed by Alzheimer's.  I think there was an unconscious reason I picked this disease to describe how I felt.

A couple of years ago I read a very good and detailed biography of the abstract expressionist painter Willem De Kooning.  When De Kooning was at his best his work has intense energy and vitality.  At the end of his life De Kooning had Alzheimer's so bad he stopped speaking.  I suppose that's part of the normal course of Alzheimer's.   At this point in his life, when a paintbrush was put in his hand (oh, they were trying to get him to paint right up to the very end, he was so bankable) - all he would paint on canvas was a circle.  The story of his art was all there for me to see in pictures in the book - early art training, decades of artistic searching, the mastery and breakthrough, and eventual pictorial dementia.  I HAVE SEEN AN ALZHEIMER'S PIECE OF ARTWORK.  WHEN I SAID MY WORK LOOKED LIKE I HAD ALZHEIMER'S, I WAS SENSITIVE TO A SUBTLE ALTERATION THAT MIMICKED EXISTING ALZHEIMER'S ARTWORK.  I BELIEVE THIS WAS BECAUSE OF A SMALL INCREASE IN ANTI-PSYCHOTIC MEDICATION.

When De Kooning was good, he was very good.  I especially liked his series of Women, who were ugly sexual goddesses (sometimes with teeth!) that dominated and made a strong subvocal statement to the viewer like  "I exist!  I am solid!  I am all woman! If you have sex with me I'll eat you whole and spit out your ribcage!".  The museum that I worked at in my youth had two de Koonings.   One was a delicate, somber, semi-realistic man relegated to the wall of a staircase (not an esteemed position).   The other painting was done after fame had arrived, in signature abstract expressionist style.  This painiting was far more advanced, in power and scope, and was one of the lynchpins of the 20th Century art wing of the museum.  So, in a way, I've had the several year experience of live contact with a massive, impressive de Kooning in addition to any of the illustrations of his work that I've seen in books.  

When Willem De Kooning started his abstract expressionist style of painting he pretty much became a success overnight.  He had been known in the artworld, lots of artist buddies, but not yet much noticed or talked about by the art critics.  The trajectory of his talent proves to me that for some artists, they must spend decades of searching before they find the style that exudes power and creative grace.  Van Gogh is another other example of an artist who trained and searched before he became a master.  Most people agree that Van Gogh was a creative genius.  Yet I own a two volume complete set of reprints of his work, and for the first ten years he was painting he was nothing more than an average painter (sometimes a horrible painter!). Early Van Gogh had some definite flops.  A Van Gogh flop?  You bet.  For some artists, it takes years of practice and dedication to get to the point where they exhibit the unearthly powers of a creative genius.  At the end of his life Van Gogh made a masterpiece every day.  You can be born with talent, maybe even genius, but not many are genius prodigies, obvious and known at a young age.  Often there is a learning curve before the artistic miraculous happens.  In America the myth is that fame and fortune happens virtually overnight (on American Idol?)  and we forget that for some creative stars there is muckcrawling and unrewarded practice for a long time.  Slogging away in darkness before the light shines.  And when that light shines, the artist truly becomes themselves.  Unique and like no other.  That's when the art world notices the talent; when the artist breaks with history and finds a signature style.

De Kooning had a wife named Elaine who the biographer that wrote my book didn't like very much.  If you encounter her on Wikipedia, they seem to be very nice to her.  They name her among the greats of the abstract expressionist movement.  I think this is a weird lie - I've never seen any work by her.   I prefer to believe the author of my book.  He never pays attention to her art.  The DeKooning marriage wasn't much of a success.  They both went on to have affairs and stop living with one another.  Yet they never divorced.  Elaine liked being married to a famous artist and she especially liked big money.   She was a mouth piece in the art world and high society promoting her husband's work.  When he started showing signs of dementia, she covered it up as best she could.  She got him assistants sworn to secrecy.  She moved him permanently out of New York City to an isolated studio Willem had designed and built the country.  Elaine did not want the high prices his works commanded to deflate.  Afterall she was his wife and entitled to a large share of his income.  Elaine promoted the visual change in Willem's art as a next step in the evolution of a master painter.   It was true that up till then  DeKooning's trajectory had always been one of evolution.  At a point in the 1980's the look of De Kooning's work definitely changed.  The abstraction in the paintings became very fluid.  Looking a bit like it had been smoothly poured in patches.  Much different from earlier paint that was broken, gestural, interwoven, fast and furious.  In late De Koonings forms of color floated serenely.  The colors were all separated from one another.  There was new peace and order in the paintings.  The dementia phase work was wholly abstract, with no subtle reference what-so-ever to any object in reality.  In my museum's De Kooning there was a pair of lips.  A lot of abstraction but a definite nod as well to a red pair of feminine lips.  The late De Kooning canvasses were still interesting - that's probably why the value held.  De Kooning's illness was relegated to rumor - but a definite departure in style had occurred.

I swear that half way through this drawing, when all the white of the paper had been eradicated by a first layer of oil pastel , I felt such a violent rejection of my creation that I wanted to destroy the artwork.  What stopped me was all the time and effort that had already gone into the piece.  I did reason with myself.   Feeling violent disgust toward my own creation is something I've wrestled with before.  Artwork has been destroyed, much to my later regret.  So no matter the dark impulses I was feeling I had to finish it.  I can't do much about my perception of my artwork.  However, I can suspect it.  I don't trust it.  One day I can like a work, another day looking at the work fills me with self loathing and a feeling of failure.  Usually when I finish an artwork, and I look at the thing done, it makes me feel crazy.  Completed work seems so energized that my sensibilities can't tolerate it.  That's always a current reaction to any work done on low dose of anti-psychotics. I like it, but I can't bare to stare at it.

I know that the disease of schizophrenia alters self awareness, and most importantly, self perception.  I don't have problems with grandiosity.  Instead I can be visited (this usually doesn't last longer than a day or two)  a rather horrible sense of self regard.  I recently had a day of darkness when I remarked to my husband, "I am shredding myself.  Cutting myself up inside and making me bleed by self condemnation.  What a horrible, unnecessary thing to do to oneself."

When I finish any piece of artwork I take a picture and email it to friends and family.  The support, and liking of this drawing has been strong and positive.  My mom really liked it.  She asked that since it seemed to her to be so creative, had I recently gone DOWN on my medication? (There was so much irony and humor in this question I almost didn't believe I had heard the comment correctly.)  However, I will make one small observation about my Mother.  She likes works done on a lot of medication.  She is distinctly troubled by low dose medication artwork.  I think they confuse and alarm her.  She has said to me, with all intended kindness, "I'm trying hard to understand your new style."  I have noticed that the art she enjoys living with, decorating her home, is light, happy, simple, and straightforward.  Mass media art.  My artwork that she owns is mostly crammed into the smallest room in the house.  This room used to be a pantry for canned goods.  My brother's realistic painting of three potatoes has a place of honor over the table in her large kitchen.  So a picture of three potatoes is what my mom prefers to look at.  I have been directly asked by my mother not to gift her anymore artwork. 

If you want to compare two works of art on two different doses of medication (and make your own opinion about the effects of medication on art), compare the picture of the last post to the picture of this essay.  They were both done on the same size of paper, 22"x 30".  You can click on the image to see it enlarged.  January's post drawing is the paper held horizontal.  February's post is the same paper held vertical.  Last month's drawing, "Love is Complicated" was conceived on 60mg Geodone.  I was happy with it when it was finished.  This month's drawing, "End of Life" was conceived on 80mg of Geodone.   While as a honest critic I see "End of Life" has solid elements of innovation, composition, and meaning, - I still feel a much looser and less passionate connection to it. I feel its me, but too, it isn't me.  And for some reason, that pisses me off. 

When I went up on medication several things happened to my personality.  I became less critical of my husband.  Whenever he said something I disagreed with there was less of a tiff.  More medication meant a more serene, agreeable me.   And formerly, every night, I had felt a darkness.  Sadness, despair, and hurt once the sun went down.   Mornings were good, but evenings, right before I took my daily dose of medication medication (with dinner - food activated the medicine) were often horrible.  On the higher dose of medication my mood stayed more constant and pleasant.  And on the higher dose of medication there has not been one incident when I said things that make no sense.  No more "everyone in the world is laughing at me", no more "everyone in the world wants to kill me", and no more strange observations like "I think I'm made out of sugar and onions."  What did happen each month, on both doses of medication, I lost the ability to speak.  It really doesn't matter how much medication I'm on, occasionally I will loose the ability to speak.  There are ways to communicate, but never with words.  And even on oodles of medication I've gotten to the point where I could not speak or move, frozen in place.  Usually that happens after a period of tremendous stress and physical activity - sensory overload.  So no amount of medication can prevent the occasional occurrence of catatonia.

Actually, there is a lot less catatonia on low medication.  But there is a lot more of what my husband calls "the scalpel".  This is critical thinking that will not tolerate any lies, fabrication, or long winded stories in conversation.  Low medication Karen wants the truth, straight forward and simple in conversation.  I'll cut with a scalpel to the chase.  No head games.  Once the scalpel is out, I will not tolerate head games.  I think this includes a diminished ability to appreciate humor.  An increase, perhaps, of concrete black and white thinking?  More medication and I'm much more light-hearted.  Less medication and I'm more mean, critical, sarcastic and biting in conversation.  My husband's dreaded "scalpel".   

My marriage was smoother, and happier, this past month while I made this artwork!  A noticeable difference!  However, my consistent distress over making artwork that I did not feel for some reason emotionally attached to (the complaint of Alzheimer'! Strange wonderment -  it feels like I now have Alzheimer's!) caused my husband to make a sudden pronouncement last weekend.  "Go back down to 60mg" he said.  "Its ok with me."

So now I'm on day 3 at 60mg.  I'm drawing everyday, planning my next piece.  But I think too I'm a little weirder, meaner, more unhappy person. I got an email from a male friend yesterday.  "You keep talking about boobs.  What is it with boobs?"  Ah yes, the return of obsessional thinking.

But I'm happy again and feel connected to my drawing.

I feel a dawn and rebirth of things not of this world.  But all said and done, the drawing on this post is still very odd.

I never stopped being the DEADLY SERIOUS IDIOT.


  1. Came across this blog because I google imaged "Nick Blinko" and got your article from a few years ago. This painting is definitely better than the one I saw with a bound bird and a cat with a gun, the similarity between the two that I see being a cut-out'ness. The subjects are fairly flat and kind've float on top of the background. While yes, this is one-dimensionality does make it so your work doesn't look like Degas (who cares, he was an anti-semite) it also gives you a new possibility. I'm sure there's a multitude of subjects that can be investigated that have a theme of shallowness that can be delved into. You just need to work within the limitations you're put under. Also, I'd suggest taking a sheet of printer paper and overlaying it on your computer and then trace pictures of paintings/drawings/photos you like and you'll start to naturally understand how "fine art" is supposed to look, which in turn will make its way into your art.

  2. I like it the way it is. And I like it a lot. Almost went on to analyzing and disagreeing with the former, but then decided that I rather just love it than ruin it. :)

  3. Your art is fantastic, very personal, please dont change it, dont trace pictures on the computer screen like wth all respect Liam said above. express yourself even when it's hard because no one understands you.just work a lot and go where you want to have your own very unique style and that makes you stand out from the crowd


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