de Kooning: A Retrospective

On view at Museum of Modern Art – September 18, 2011–January 9, 2012
by Jonathan Beer

Willem de Kooning. Pink Angels.

On a quiet Sunday morning a buzzing anticipation abounds as museum-goers descend en masse towards the cavernous entrance of the year’s most anticipated show. De Kooning: A Retrospective, on view at the Museum of Modern Art through January 9, has transformed MoMA’s 17,000 square foot sixth floor into a mecca for Willem de Kooning enthusiasts. Nearly 200 paintings occupy every wall, and span every period in the artists’ seven decade career, from his highly technical training at Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Technique to the last paintings of the 1980s.
The exhibition proceeds in a roughly chronological fashion, opening with two early paintings, Seated Man (1939) and Seated Woman (1940), which introduce de Kooning’s continuous journey between the tradition of figuration and avant-garde abstraction. The first room also displays two academic drawings completed as a student at the Rotterdam Academy, irrefutable evidence of the impressive facility he relied on throughout his life. From the onset of his career there are signs of an artist with an endlessly flexible imagination; de Kooning flirts with many styles and subjects, always moving between representation, abstraction, and formal play.

Overall his paintings are fraught with internal turbulence, each work a new battle in an endless war where de Kooning fights himself, vying for an advantageous position. Some pieces are a bloodbath, like the famous Pink Angels, a compulsively agonized-over portrait punctuated by a virtuosic command of his intention.  Incisive marks divide and subdivide its glowing golden surface; a surface that permits a glimpse of the tumultuous energy underneath.
The confident line work and aggressive paint handling that characterize a de Kooning belies the ‘slowness’ of his work, each piece is a tribute to the long read. Before William Kentridge or even Francis Bacon, Willem de Kooning epitomized the archetypal Sisyphusian artist; pushing through many veils of experience in each piece. The quick glance does insult to the weight and history harbored within every work. Moments of quiet contemplation permeate the cacophony if given time, slowly revealing some of its secrets. An eye peeks through; a grimace materializes, Cheshire-cat like, smiling from some frightening dimension. As one gazes at the works they come alive, the echoes of de Kooning’s push-pull technique can be felt from across the room.
With each succeeding room the intensity of the exhibition mounts, adding more complexity the codex of de Kooning’s artistic vocabulary. Excavation (1960,) a landmark painting for the artist is given center stage. In the next room the ‘Woman’ period begins, and the exhibition walls resound with the manic and intense brushstrokes of Woman I (1950-52.) Deep emotion rises to the surface during this period, the pictures are worked and reworked, each more ferocious than the last. The glimmering colors from ‘Full Arm Sweep’ period are boldly enigmatic, abstract landscapes created after time spent in East Hampton. A few steps further and we are immersed in his next period, greeted by the slippery surfaces of paintings done in Long Island, like Woman, Sag Harbor (1964.) Here the new found landscape of Long Island melds with the figure, inextricably intertwined on the slick canvas. Larger, more erotic and frightening pieces hang slightly above the crowd, with the unflinching gaze of some half-demented deity.
As the exhibition nears its end the space formerly occupied with two dimensional works acquiesces to the bronze sculptures de Kooning experimented with between 1969 and 1978. During the same period his interests turned to lithography, creating over 20 works between 1970 and 1971, and incorporating his painter approach into the process.
1975 marked the artists’ return to painting, which he pursued until his death in 1997. Unpredictable as ever, de Kooning’s painting changes radically for the final time; the swirling and viscous paint of his previous work shifts into cleaner and more minimal compositions. The agonized pictures of earlier periods give way to graphic works of quiet majesty, and effortlessly beautiful line work reemerges. Harmonic color pairings show a gentler but equally focused de Kooning at work. Controversy surrounds these later pictures; in the 1980s de Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and critics have wondered whether the works were done by an artist still in possession of his identity or simply in possession of what remains after a lifetime of rigorous aesthetic and artistic exercise, the learned hand absent its master. No matter how faint, a glimmer of artist’s persistence shines from the depths of these works. Like his life, they are moving and light, lost yet determined.

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