Driven to Abstraction?

Willem de Kooning at the Museum of Modern Art

Pink Angels, ca. 1945, oil and charcoal on canvas, 52″ x 40″.


Some artists stagger under the weight of a retrospective, their work appearing too stylized, repetitive, and familiar. But not Willem de Kooning. With his paintings, drawings, sculptures, and prints all together and splendidly installed in MoMA’s spacious galleries, what becomes apparent is not only the works’ strong formal qualities but also the sense of warmth they convey and their ability to communicate directly with the viewer. Beyond that, we detect an emotionalism that is neither corny nor sentimental. Much of this comes as a surprise.

The show, de Kooning’s first full-scale retrospective, which will not travel, has been brilliantly curated by John Elderfield, the museum’s chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture. What is clear throughout is de Kooning’s big visual vocabulary, constituting his own clearly expressed language—a European-American blend. And all the elements, like his dance between abstraction and figuration, continuously worked in concert.

Now that de Kooning is back after having been dismissed by some audiences for being too expressive, too seductively painterly, and too misogynistic, given his aggressive, often grotesque portrayals of women, he’ll more than ever be the secret ingredient in the work of younger painters just discovering him. And as for the recurring series of “Woman” paintings, so deftly painted and dramatic, it’s difficult to understand the outrage. Perhaps we’ve grown accustomed to visceral depictions of violence and angry narrative paintings, so that de Kooning’s seem relatively benign. Perhaps, too, we’re seduced, if not blinded, by the qualities of the paintings themselves.

The show begins with the early, and de rigueur, academic works, made between 1916 and ’26, when de Kooning moved to the United States. We see the adept student playing in the fields of art history, from 17th-century Dutch still-life painting to the work of Miró, Matisse, Braque, and Picasso.

Less expected, from the ’30s, comes a charming sequence of small, spare paintings—like abstract versions of Morandi’s very still still lifes. One titled Father, Mother, Sister, Brother (ca. 1937) also resembles a distilled Picasso. Hanging nearby is an anachronistic Gorky-esque pencil sketch, touchingly titled Self-Portrait with Imaginary Brother (1938).

The early figure studies of individual men and women, some featuring Elaine de Kooning as model, also show the inspiration of Gorky, with hints of John Graham. These rather classically posed figures are painted in distinctive acid greens and strident pinks. In these paintings, de Kooning created an interesting kind of cubism that ran through much of his future work. He used tracing paper, continually shifting it and thus establishing a multidimensionality and fluidity, as if the low-tech equivalent of computer rendering. The works culminate in the stunningly complex Pink Angels (ca. 1945), a truly iconic image.

In the later ’40s the visual tension between the paintings of Pollock and those of de Kooning becomes so intense, it is sometimes hard to differentiate them, although we can see in de Kooning’s large Attic (1949), for example, how consciously constructed his abstractions were and how European biomorphism was still an important undercurrent. The relations between Pollock’s images and de Kooning’s are sometimes reminiscent of those between Picasso’s and Braque’s, especially their Analytic Cubist paintings.

We move from the urgency of the figures to the Franz Kline–like architectonic paintings such as Black and White Rome T (1959) to the awesomely powerful yet meditative Long Island landscapes like Door to the River (1960) to the contorted bronze sculptures such as Clam Digger (1972) and the more agitated, muddled abstract paintings of the ’70s.

But it’s the last section that’s so problematic for many—the simplified linear paintings made between 1983 and ’87, as de Kooning suffered the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. These works are a fitting conclusion to the retrospective, as the finely limned compositions attain the quality of delicate skeletons, extreme distillations, of all the earlier works. The Cat’s Meow (1987) is indeed the last word—at least almost.

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