In the early 1970s, Willem de Kooning was widely considered a once-great has-been whose career had peaked and faded away. He grew unfashionably old, and though he never stopped painting, he nonetheless fell out of favor with the changing tastes of the time. As his 70th birthday neared, de Kooning reinvented himself as a sculptor, and the experiment culminated in the creation of Clamdigger (1972), a masterpiece that finally fulfilled de Kooning’s long-denied goal of male figure representation. This playful and courageous switch of medium enabled an artistic embodiment of the artist himself; Clamdigger is de Kooning’s elusive self-portrait captured outside of painting. Clamdigger makes a rare appearance at the Nasher Sculpture Center as part of its Fifth Anniversary Exhibition, In Pursuit of the Masters: Stories from the Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection.
Attacking the clay with the same virility he used when attacking the canvas, de Kooning excavated male form from ripples of mud, mirroring the men who dug for clams along the beaches near his East Hamptons home. His manhandling of the clay provokes unexpected patterns of thin and thick, smooth and rough, exposed and hidden. The figure’s limbs abandon the safety of its shoulders and torso as if forced by heavy weights to succumb to earth’s gravity, while monstrously large feet, hands and genitals angle upward, striving for open air and relinquishment from their thin and weakly appendages. Its form seems both organic and accidental.
Now I find crushes in odd persons – Fidel Castro, for example – but it doesn’t come any odder than a crush on plaster. He isn’t a pretty guy by any stretch of the imagination, but he is manly and virile and rugged. Clamdigger looks like he just walked out of Fight Club. I dig that.