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A Whole Man’s Life

By Sarah E. Fensom

MoMA mounts a de Kooning show as vast and varied as the artist’s career.

Willem de Kooning, Orestes, 1947

Willem de Kooning, Orestes, 1947

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The Museum of Modern Art’s de Kooning retrospective, running until January 9, is massive. It’s the first exhibition to ever take up the entirety of the museum’s sixth floor, some 17,000 square feet. Featuring over 200 works from each point of the artist’s career, it is just as exuberant and provocative as it is overwhelming. The pinks, teals and yellows are there. The abstracted figurations of women are there. Excavation (1950) is there. So are the historically dismissed paintings of de Kooning’s last active decade.

When touring the labyrinth of galleries (seven in total), the viewer is inundated with the feeling of movement—the movement of one man’s adept and wildly active hands, the movement of time through over half of the 20th century and the movement of other viewers—lots of them. Fellow visitors dance around each other, squinting right in front of the works to make out every last detail, and taking steps backwards (without turning around) to make out shapes in the compositions. Those taking the audio tour are likely to bump, elbow and shuffle their feet, as if setting a pick and roll on a basketball court. In fact, “de Kooning: A Retrospective” seems slated to become the next high-stakes art viewing “thunder dome” that the Met’s “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” was last spring.

But predictions aside, this exhibition, organized by MoMA’s chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture, John Elderfield, is worth the hype. It sets a new standard for the large-scale museum retrospective, committing itself to nuance rather than generalization—a quality that is essential to viewing de Kooning’s work. Elderfield’s legwork certainly seems admirable, as he acknowledges in the exhibition’s catalogue that his goal was to “reveal the extent and depth of Willem de Kooning’s artistic achievement in as concise a manner as is compatible with so prolific and long-lived an artist.” De Kooning, who was never headed for membership in the “27 club,” lived to be 93 and amassed nearly eight decades worth of work. Accordingly, the exhibition features pieces dating from 1916 through 1987.

Entering the first room, viewers are greeted by two canvases set next to one another, as if an archetype of sibling rivalry: Seated Figure (Classical Male), from 1941–43, and Woman Sitting (1943–44). This loveseat of disjointed body parts sets the stage for the tension between abstraction and figuration that permeated the artist’s career and enraged his critics. From there, the exhibition is organized by loose chronology, first, with two examples of the academic work the artist made in his native Holland, Still Life (1916–17) and Still Life (Bowl, Pitcher and Jug) from 1921. It continues with de Kooning’s early abstractions made during the period between his arrival in the U.S. in 1926 (as a stowaway!) and the end of World War II. Nearby are drawings by the artist that prove his skills as a draftsman, including a curious example titled Self-Portrait with Imaginary Brother. His first series of “Woman” paintings (194046) is also in this gallery, giving a peek into de Kooning’s technique of charcoal drawing and oil color revisions. Here are Pink Lady (1944) and Pink Angels (1945) in all their glory.

The next gallery leads into a period of success and critical acclaim with paintings such as Fire Island (1946) and Judgment Day (1946)—which in turn became a 17-foot backdrop for the 1946 dance performance “Labyrinth,” on view outside of the exhibition)—and his Cubist-influenced black-and-white series (1947–49). The latter served as his membership card into the abstract-expressionist movement, a label that he deplored. In fact, throughout his career de Kooning dismissed all labels, saying in 1949, “You are in a group or movement because you cannot help it.” (Though he did admit, “of all movements, I like Cubism most…Cubism became a movement, it didn’t set out to be one.”)

The exhibition then focuses on de Kooning’s work during and after his teaching residency at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1948. He spent the summer there working on Asheville, a lively painting that married the elongated strokes of his black-and-white series with bursts of color. During the period 1948–50, when he was back in New York, the artist produced his second set of “Woman” paintings, often described as more “violent” than his first, and a group of abstractions that inverted the black-and-white series. These two approaches of figuration and abstraction created such a friction in the artist’s work that they led to the massive, explosive Excavation (1950), which took de Kooning six months to complete and is the largest canvas of his career.

Entering the next gallery is like turning a page, as the viewer comes face to face with de Kooning’s third “Woman” series, the group of paintings that caused such an uproar when first seen at Sidney Janis Gallery in the spring of 1953. This series of six interrelated canvases, made mostly between 1950–53, marked a transition de Kooning into a more painterly and improvisational period. Woman I, long a fixture of MoMA’s permanent collection, is a snarling, beastly yet voluptuous example of the female form, held together by the charcoal lines already evident throughout the previous galleries. Each iteration of this “Woman” series pushes the limits of representation and the pictorial plane further and further until any sort of reference is unthinkable.

De Kooning was lambasted for these works. Jackson Pollock griped, “Bill, you betrayed it. You’re doing the figure. You’re still doing the same goddamned thing.” Yet de Kooning defended the figure, saying famously, “Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented.” Others called the series “self-parody.” Critic and historian Clement Greenberg, who praised the black-and-white series, also spoke ill of these works, but wrote in a 1953 essay, as if in confusion, “[de Kooning] wants in the end to recover a distinct image of the human figure, yet without sacrificing anything of abstract painting’s decorative and physical force. Obviously this is highly ambitious art.”
Indeed, after this series de Kooning’s work was thought to be retrograde, and he was even accused of dismissing the achievements of the avant-garde. What this exhibition proves in its remaining galleries is what the painter and critic Lawrence Gowing once said about Cezanne: “Originality often gets caught in a history of inveterate misunderstanding.”

Here we see Two Women (1954–55), about which de Kooning noted, “the landscape is in the Woman and there is woman in the landscapes.” De Kooning finishes off the ’50s with his “abstract parkway landscapes,” which were sometimes named in reference to real places and what the artist described as “slipping glimpse of features of a landscape as seen from a moving car.” On view here are the bold Park Rosenberg (1957), which revels in muscular blobs of paint and a blue so vivid it’s intoxicating, and Merritt Parkway (1959). Critic Thomas Hess dubbed the artist’s technique here the “full arm sweep,” and de Kooning noted that he used “very big brushes, the kind of brushes that if you paint a ceiling it drips all over you.”

The next galleries contain many canvases that were inspired by the artist’s time spent on the East End of Long Island. The seaside Clam Diggers (1963) leads into the more erotic and expressionistic Woman in a Rowboat (1964), which uses oils that maintain a finish of sticky wetness. De Kooning’s oil transfers onto newsprint of the late ’60s and his quirky humanoid bronze sculptures are also on view.

As the exhibition comes to a close with the expansive canvases de Kooning made at the end of his career, during the ’80s, it seems as though everything falls into place. These paintings use ample pockets of white and classic crayon-box colors in bold brushstrokes that weave and intersect like a trippy computer graphic. De Kooning’s 1987 Cat’s Meow creates space and depth of field in ways that make the canvas look like it’s going to pop, leaving confetti everywhere. Being in this last gallery is truly an “I’ve never seen this before” moment.

The retrospective is in a sense a rollercoaster ride that leaves one a bit dizzy, though exhilarated at the end. There are benches outside the last gallery that unsurprisingly attract many weary behinds—yet another thing that MoMA did right in planning this first posthumous de Kooning retrospective (In 1969 the museum was also the first in the U.S. to produce any full-scale retrospective devoted to the artist). It seems likely that de Kooning himself would approve of this show’s comprehensive “full arm sweep”: In 1959 he said, “There’s no way of looking at a work of art by itself. It’s not self-evident. It needs a history, it needs a lot of talking about…it is a part of a whole man’s life.”

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: November 2011

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