NEW YORK — To enter the new Willem de Kooning exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art is to find oneself in an incredible, hard-to-fathom landscape. De Kooning famously “jumped ship” to reach the United States from his native Netherlands in 1926. Like the young Dutch artist in Jazz-age America, we approach this impressive survey of his paintings and sculpture in the spirit of immigrants in a new world. Confronted by dissolving figures and featureless landscapes, we strive to make sense of barely comprehensible things.
The art on display in MoMA’s retrospective is indisputably grand. Many of de Kooning’s signature paintings hang on the exhibition walls, including Excavation, painted during the watershed year of 1950 and considered by many art critics to be his masterpiece. And yet, to come face-to-face with these dazzling, bewildering and, in some cases, unsettling, works is to directly confront the enigma of de Kooning’s creative genius.
De Kooning is usually hailed as one of the Abstract Expressionist masters who dominated “Mid-Century Modern” America. That’s not quite how he envisioned his art.
“I’m not interested in ‘abstracting’ or taking things out or reducing painting,” de Kooning explained to Aline Louchheim in a 1951 New York Times interview. “I paint this way because I can keep putting more things in it: drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space.”
The sheer expansiveness of de Kooning’s artistic vision, so marked in the New York Times interview, is evident throughout the MoMA retrospective.
Willem De Kooning, 1904-1997, was born in Rotterdam to lower middle-class parents, who divorced when he was three years old. Art from a very early age absorbed his interests. He was solidly trained as a graphic artist at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques. But the commercial aspects of art, no small consideration to a person raised in his economic strata, did not preclude a fascination with the revolutionary developments in art that were taking place in the contemporary scene.
De Kooning’s considerable ability in representational art is evident in several early works in the exhibition. His 1940 pencil sketch of Elaine Fried, whom he later married, demonstrates drawing skill worthy of Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
De Kooning also showed that he could plumb the depths of human emotion with the series of male figures he painted during the 1930’s. These haunted, dissatisfied men, with their searching eyes, also testify to de Kooning’s often desperate personal situation during the years of the Great Depression and World War II. Living a hand-to-mouth existence in New York City during the 1930’s and 40’s, de Kooning constantly searched for a way to express his vision. Visiting art museums with his friend and mentor, Arshile Gorky, another immigrant artist of genius, de Kooning attentively studied classic art. But with every advance in his artistic quest, there was a retreat into dissatisfaction and doubt.
De Kooning’s troubled apprenticeship is evident in Seated Woman, which dates to 1939-40. Elaine Fried modeled for this striking depiction of feminine beauty. Seated Woman is markedly different from the monstrous, hag-like appearance of de Kooning’s Woman I and her fearsome sisters from the 1950’s. There is much in this painting that testifies to de Kooning’s dedicated study of classical art. The rich color scheme was influenced by the Roman frescos from Pompeii displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the young woman’s face is worthy of Botticelli.
It is also worth noting that de Kooning seated this woman in a surreal setting and that her body is in a state of disintegration. Geometric forms float around her. One of her arms is little more than a deformed mass, while the other hangs limp like that of a broken doll. A blood-like stream pours from her eye onto her exposed neck. Seated Woman might more readily have been entitled Sacrificial Victim.
There are a number of interpretations for these discordant elements in Seated Woman. One plausible explanation is that de Kooning, for all his love of Titian, Rubens and Ingres, acknowledged that it was impossible to honor the classical spirit by strictly adhering to time-worn canons of representational art. The way of the Old Masters was a dead end.
The Modern Age of the 1940’s, beset by global war and ideological conflict, required New Masters. De Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and others of the New York School were ready to take up the challenge. But while Pollock gained early acclaim, de Kooning continued to struggle. His Pink Angels from 1945 has many elements of great art. But it was a troubling work, a mass of dismembered limbs and raw, stretched tendons. The parts do not equal a whole.
Pink Angels is the kind of work that might be expected from an artist on the edge of a breakdown or on the brink of a major revelation. Fortunately for de Kooning it was the latter.
De Kooning’s breakthrough came with the “Black and White” series that he displayed at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York in April 1948. Fittingly, this exhibition of ten abstract paintings, de Kooning’s first one-man show, was a commercial bust and a critical sensation. It’s not hard to see why. For art patrons, de Kooning’s “black paintings” were more evocative of photo negatives than finished paintings. But critics, aware of the effort that de Kooning put into the underlying forms of these works and his courage in modifying or rejecting them as the paintings evolved, were hugely impressed.
Approaching the “Black and White” paintings on display in the MoMA exhibition, one is struck by the immense power and range of these works. Orestes, painted in 1947, is a mass of looming shapes and letters, coalescing to form a mysterious word or message that cannot be readily deciphered.
Other examples, like the simply titled Painting from 1948, convey the swirling ebb and flow of life in modern urban environments. This is the real pattern of everyday life, the imprint of the movements and aspirations that people impose upon the hard rectangles created by society to control, often unavailingly, the course of human existence.
De Kooning’s “Black and White” paintings might well have become his signature style. Given de Kooning’s refusal to “reduce” his art to one set of ideals, that never happened. A year after the show at the Egan Gallery, de Kooning reversed the palette of these abstract works, with white becoming the foundational color. This in due course led to one of his greatest works, Excavation.
This imposing painting is positioned at the center of the MoMA retrospective, and rightly so. De Kooning resumed work on the “Black and White” series after spending the summer of 1948 teaching at Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina. The sojourn at this multi-disciplinary institution enabled de Kooning to reflect and reformulate ideas about his abstract and figurative work. Beginning with Attic in 1949 and then Excavation, de Kooning broke down the human body into its composite parts. These he then incorporated in abstract landscapes of surpassing size and emotional force. Color too would re-emerge, a tiny dab of red in Attic, followed in Excavation by a “bleed through” of hues absent from his palette in the late 1940’s, red, blue, yellow, purple and a hint of green.
The title of Excavation, like many of the names of de Kooning’s works, has mystified many critics and viewers. The name is really of secondary importance to what is taking place on its 6 ft. by 8 ft. expanse. Excavation represents the culmination of Cubist art, dating back to the early experiments of Braque and Picasso. Human body parts – eyes, teeth, faces, arms – are disassembled and then reconfigured as the elements of a vast, all-encompassing environment.
In June of 1950, de Kooning began a new figurative painting, the notorious, now celebrated Woman I. What seemed like a radical departure in the early 1950’s actually hearkened back to a painting he worked on for several years, beginning in 1943, Queen of Hearts. With its pinched face and blankly staring eyes, Queen of Hearts represents the negation of the classical ideals of beauty. With Woman I, de Kooning explored these issues even further.
De Kooning labored long on Woman I. He extended his effort into a series of six related Woman paintings, with Woman I actually being finished in mid-stream. The resulting exhibition in 1953 shocked the purists of Abstract Expressionism, like the “Art Czar” Clement Greenberg. Others wondered about de Kooning’s psychological well-being. What do the six fearfully ugly Woman paintings really represent?
Perhaps the best short answer is that de Kooning was addressing gender issues of the 1950’s American male, as well as incidents in his personal life.
De Kooning’s childhood relations with his formidable mother and his tempestuous marriage certainly played a part in the creation of the Woman I series. The real motivation for these paintings, however, was the unresolved question of the role of women in Western society following the Second World War. The ideal models of womanhood in 1950, as depicted in American advertising art, were still the curvaceous, flaxen-haired “pin-up” or the “girl next door.” Both were sexual objects to be controlled. But women had played a decisive role in the war effort and, despite the reassertion of traditional male-female role models, the first stirrings of the Women’s Liberation movement were in the wind.
De Kooning exhibited six “Bitch Goddess” paintings when most American men preferred to watch Marilyn Monroe stand over a steam vent. These paintings, as Robert Harris observed, are rooted in the “simultaneous desire for and fear of women.” De Kooning may not have intended to paint Woman I to express these suppressed emotions. But that is what he put on the canvas and he may have been as perplexed as his critics as to how it got there.
“I have an image in mind,” de Kooning observed about his artistic process, “but the results surprise me.”
Excavation and Woman I set the pattern for de Kooning’s knack of amazing and confounding the art community in rapid succession. Following the Woman I series, de Kooning returned to abstract forms with a series of huge, bold evocations of travel and momentum, inspired by automobile excursions to the countryside surrounding New York City. With titles like Merritt Parkway and Palisade, the paintings were visual statements of the mobile, affluent society of 1950’s America. The series was exhibited to critical acclaim in 1959 and lucrative sales.
The quintessential de Kooning of this period, and in some ways of his career, was the 1956 work, Easter Monday. This striking abstract landscape is a study of sacred and pastoral themes. Slashing brush strokes evoke the memory of Christ’s passion, while traces of subtle spring colors, pink and peach, affirm that life will arise anew. De Kooning’s technique of placing newspapers over his paintings to keep the oils wet to ease the process of reworking, left traces of a ghostly imprint on Easter Monday, adding to its ethereal effect.
As the 1960’s dawned, de Kooning’s world changed too. Profitable exhibitions could not compensate for the erosion of the “Downtown” art scene that had sustained him. Jackson Pollock was killed in a 1956 auto accident and Franz Kline, a particularly close friend, died in 1962. De Kooning was the last man standing of the New York School, the Great American Artist by process of elimination.
Being alone at the top was not a state of affairs that de Kooning could long tolerate. In 1963, he relocated to Springs, New York, a Long Island town near East Hampton. It was not an altogether beneficial move, at least during the 1960’s and early 1970’s.
Away from the New York scene, de Kooning experimented boldly, in paintings and sculpture. He indulged himself, particularly in his delight in the liquidity of oil paint. But, as with Montauk I, the effect of this “wet” technique often made more of a smear than a finish. His female nudes, some with splayed legs and lascivious smiles, made Woman I a model of respectability. De Kooning seemed to have lost his way.
And then, in the late 1970’s, de Kooning regained his form with abstract landscapes worthy of the best of his earlier work. The familiar pattern, the dissonance of Pink Angels leading to the wonder of Excavation, reasserted itself. Only this time, it was his last rally.
In 1981, de Kooning summoned all his artistic energy to paint Pirate (Untitled II), an elegiac work in the style and the spirit of his long departed friend, Arshile Gorky. As his life force weakened and he was affected by the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease, de Kooning struggled against adversity. De Kooning kept painting as long as he could hold a brush, creating luminous integrations of soaring line and primary hues such as Rider (Untitled VII).
The MoMA retrospective displays a photo of the aged de Kooning in his vast studio, surrounded by the big canvases of his later years. It is one of the glories of this impressive exhibition, sprawling over the 17,000 square feet of MoMA’s sixth floor, that you can stop for a moment and behold these color-rich works, as he did. Stand there, in the last gallery, and you will be able to appreciate what de Kooning meant when he declared his intension of “putting more things” in his pictures. You may not comprehend all of the elements or meanings of his work, but there is no doubt upon leaving the MoMA exhibition that Willem de Kooning’s heart and soul were included in the mix.
de Kooning: A Retrospective appears at The Museum of Modern Art,
11 West 53 Street, New York, NY 10019 (September 18, 2011–January 9, 2012)
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Ed Voves is a freelance writer, based in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, the artist Anne Lloyd, and a swarm of cats who love curling up with good books.
Mr. Voves graduated with a B.A. in History from LaSalle University in 1976 and a Masters in Information Science from Drexel University in 1989. After teaching for several years with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, he worked in the news research department for “The Philadelphia Inquirer” and the “Philadelphia Daily News,” 1985 to 2003. It was with the “Daily News,” that he began his freelance writing, doing book reviews and author interviews with such notable figures as Umberto Eco, Maurice Sendak, and Peter O’Toole. For the “Inquirer,” he specialized in reviews of major historical works. Following his time with the newspapers, he worked as an independent researcher for Knowledge@Wharton, the online journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He joined the staff of the Free Library of Philadelphia in 2005 and is currently the branch manager of the Kingsessing Branch in southwest Philadelphia. In 2006, he began writing for the “California Literary Review.” History of Yoga