de Kooning: A Retrospective : The Museum of Modern Art, NY
The Willem de Kooning exhibition that just opened at MoMA is about as exhilarating as art can get. Being called a labor of love, by the efforts of MoMA’s Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture, John Elderfield, this show is really a job worthy of bravo. Having spent about seven years and apparently an unknown but staggering cost (there is reportedly four billion dollars worth of art on this 6th floor), Elderfield’s efforts have finally evinced a show that should be the Museum’s goal. This exhibition takes itself very seriously, yet is also accessible to the eighth grade school trip. What is impressive, but also proves that curating is serious stuff, is the encompassing nature of the show, without the blunder other retrospectives have. This exhibition is freshly squeezed and tracks works from when de Kooning was 12 up to his 80s but it doesn’t go thunk-kety-thunk-thunk through the chronology, biography, myth and pathos many retrospectives have, instead it shows, tells, and leaves room for you to think for yourself.
Functioning as a retrospective, the show does throw down fish lines of de Kooning’s trajectory as an artist. As with most artists from this time, de Kooning has a looming personal life that is rightly and also not used as punctuations in deconstructing his art. He was born in Rotterdam in 1904 and they say came to New York as a stowaway in 1926. He met and be-friended the people who were doing things in the city, and he was more than astute and aware of the works being made by his near contemporaries; Picasso, Gorky, Kline, Mondrian, etc. He married Elaine and he impressed himself further upon the scene, drawing notice from the ordainer Greenberg and becoming entrenched in what is studied as the New York School. He was a part of an American art history that is bygone like well-designed cars and the idea that artists can change the world. He developed dementia in his later years and was proclaimed as incompetent in his late 80s and died at 92.
I never knew Willem de Kooning, I’m sure he would have scared the socks right off me, and while his biography is of course important, the minutia of these things is not something I enjoy fixating on nor find that revealing. This is because de Kooning made art that tells more about himself, his psychology, his physicality, his mind, then any amount of words pressed together. This is also the most important thing about de Kooning and why this show is so essential. His work is something that you must see, must be in the same room with, share the same oxygen with.
Willem de Kooning described in one word would be veracity. Painting was not a medium, a method or a tool for him, it was the problem, it was the solution, it was the it. And this is not an easy fact, as you can see throughout his years of painting. He was always pushing himself, sometimes to unsuccessful places, but always pushing painting to be not the thing he wanted it to be but the thing it was. The search for this truth is what makes de Kooning more than relevant and should be even more influential than he is today. Although there are obvious reveals in his work of mimicry, quotes and reference to his peers, such as Gorky, Kandinsky, Motherwell, Rothko, Picasso, Pollack, Dubuffet, Mondrian and many more, it’s done not as homage or replication but as in battle, not with the artist as a person but with the technique of painting that they were mastering. de Kooning seems to have studied, cropped, chopped and reconfigured the things he wanted to know about this or that type of painting. These resulted in some works that seem a touch too tutorial, as in a black and white painting called Painting from 1948 and Judgment Day, 1946, but throughout there are gems like Pink Angels, c. 1945 of course.
The biggest battle within de Kooning’s work is between abstraction and figuration. He is a master of figuration yet because painting is the thing that makes him tick, he needs to explode his mastery. The periods in which he is pushing his paintings in non-figurative abstractions can be noticed in his evolution of paintings of the figure. The epitome of this mixture of form is in his women paintings of the early 1950s where stands a fierce female with gaping eyes, vicious mouth and a body already disemboweled. These are the at once extremely chaotic but surgical and they are just as much about color as they are of composition. Many people love being able to call these works misogynistic but seeing these as a full suite and also seeing the earlier works of women throughout his years, should force pause to this quip.
The figure is the site on which de Kooning can contrast the application of paint as abstraction. Within the form of the female figure, he sets limitations and also situates painting within a charged arena of meaning. To go towards these obstacles, was a delirious faux pas, especially during the time of their making. The female figure in art is massive to overtake or seduce, but all of the great painters have faced her and have to danced with her. de Kooning’s women is in this way extremely feminist. She is the idea of the muse that has and was being rehashed, removed and elevated for centuries and it is this same idea of this female that de Kooning says, “You want a muse? Here’s your fucking muse.” And I think that is just fantastic. As a woman, I would rather be de Kooning’s women than Picasso’s any day of the week. These paintings are more than just a form of a female as well. They confront this dilemma of pure abstraction and the figure with brutal confrontation. The swipe of paint next to another swipe of paint somehow becomes an arm, a breast, an eye. Does it matter? Yes, and that’s the point. You are seeing more than just a painting but a battle of wills between the artist and painting.
There is another period of work that fused abstraction and the body that was newly seen. There are works from the mid 1960s when he was living in Long Island and they are just about the dirtiest, sexiest paintings I have ever seen. They are more pastel in color, more fleshy raw pinks, and mint greens. They are wobbly women with blurred features. Up close, like almost all of de Kooning’s paintings, they are splatters and shapes of colors but from a distance of twenty feet or so and if you move your head ever so slightly, you will see two bodies coupling, you see legs up in the air, buttocks squeezed, and the drizzle and swatches of paint that were abstract glops a minute ago become visualizations of an orgasm, of sweat and spit. They made me blush a little.
The paintings in the final years of his life, when he was in his 80s, were possibly the most surprising and refreshing paintings that I have seen in a while and not because they are the tail end of “de Kooning’s” work but because they are really brave new forms of abstraction. It’s like the heart of an artichoke, he had layers of tough leaves that he pulled and worked to perfection to confront abstraction and then in the end he had all the tools. He had worked out so much of it that at this stage in his life all the remained was a fleshy little heart that could be just as powerful with a few strokes and the primary colors to have a form of perfection.
This show proves that the way in which most of our visual intake and production is made today is not necessarily the best nor is it actually that interesting. To be able to sweep across a life and find such a singular focus with such varied exploration is not something that should be considered novel. This is the thing that makes good art. Also the ability to see, to look at and to go back and look some more is beyond educational, it is influential. The type of artist de Kooning was and seeing this show will make one realize that what he was confronting: the ideas of painting, the idea of making art, are far from being solved and needs others to step up and walk the walk.