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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



Willem de Kooning (American, born The Netherlands, 1904-1997). Painting. Enamel and oil on canvas. 42 5/8 x 56 1/8" (108.3 x 142.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase, 1948. (c)2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
I don’t know what it is, but the reverential tone of the reviews greeting “de Kooning: A Retrospective” at the Museum of Modern Art may be what brings out the iconoclast in me. This mammoth exhibition, curated by John Elderfield, assembles nearly 200 paintings, drawings & sculptures from museums and private collections all over the U.S., and even a smattering from abroad, into a show so large that it occupies the space on the museum’s sixth floor normally given over to two different shows (through January 9).

If you believe Holland Cotter of the NY Times, all this makes up for the “neglect” MoMA had previously shown this Dutch-born master. Cotter is under the impression that MoMA has ignored de Kooning except for a show of his late paintings in 1997. Not quite. Of course, Cotter is a lot younger than I am, but, as even Elderfield (who is also younger) knows, MoMA played host to a de Kooning retrospective nearly as large way back in 1969. That catalogue’s checklist includes 147 works, and de Kooning was only 64 at the time. Although the show originated with the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and traveled to the Tate Gallery before it arrived in New York, the catalogue is by the all-American Thomas B. Hess, editor of Art News and (along with Harold Rosenberg) de Kooning’s fondest admirer (the show subsequently moved on to the Art Institute of Chicago and the LA County Museum).

Nor has de Kooning (1904-1997) been neglected by other museums. He had a full-dress retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1983, and two major exhibitions to celebrate his 90th birthday in 1994, one at the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden of the de Koonings in its collection, and one at the National Gallery of Art in Washington of late paintings (the latter subsequently traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Tate). Pollock, by comparison, had retrospectives at MoMA in 1956 & 1967, but then not again until 1998, nor has any other major U.S. museum attempted a Pollock retrospective. Rothko hasn’t rated a retrospective from MoMA since 1961---though the Guggenheim, the National Gallery in Washington, and the Whitney have played host to retrospectives of his. I can’t be sure about this, but I have the distinct impression that neither Hofmann, Motherwell, Still nor Newman have ever been accorded retrospectives by MoMA either. So what is all this bellyaching about neglect?


The current de Kooning retrospective is already drawing crowds to MoMA, but then the artist has always been one of the most popular abstract expressionists, if not the most popular. For openers, he seems to have been unusually charming and sociable as a person, not a scowling loner like Pollock. Also, his style of painting has always been much more easily adapted by followers than, say, Pollock’s. Then again, his cheering section (Hess & Rosenberg) has always seemed (to a majority of humankind) less formidable & correspondingly more approachable than Pollock’s best-known champion (whose name escapes me at the moment). Most importantly, the figurative aspects of de Kooning’s paintings have always been much more accessible to the gallery-going public. He sprang to the forefront of its consciousness, not with his first solo exhibition – of pure abstracts --- at Egan in 1948, but rather with his fully-publicized & widely-reviewed 1953 exhibition at Sidney Janis of semi-abstract “Women.” With that show, it became possible for legions of people who had never really understood abstraction but still wanted to sound au courant to say hooray, if de Kooning’s an abstract expressionist, then we can relate to abstract expressionism, too.

This year's show at MoMA capitalizes on this appeal of the figurative by emphasizing that throughout his career, de Kooning was painting representational images (principally women) as well as abstracts. Of seven galleries devoted to this show, only the last is devoid of representations of women, and the labels to even the earlier abstract pictures hammer away at this theme of “representation in abstraction” again and again and again—pointing almost desperately to figurative elements in even the wonderfully ambiguous “black” paintings with which de Kooning dazzled knowledgeable observers in 1948. Anybody who reads this column regularly knows that I’m not opposed to the idea of representation in abstraction, but what interests me is the ambiguities inherent in abstract representation, how the same image can be so richly multireferential and refer to many different subjects at the same time, and how this raises it to a level beyond the pedestrian uni-referential imagery suggested by the labels in this show. Rarely have I seen an exhibition in which I was more annoyed by labels, and more eager to suggest that viewers pass them by.

That said, the present show is certainly an admirable opportunity to see what de Kooning created in his seven decades of painting, for there is much in this show that I was either unfamiliar with, or had forgotten about, and welcomed the opportunity to see anew. I am most grateful to Elderfield and MoMA for affording me this inimitable opportunity, and I realize that mountains of care and consideration have gone into the creation of this show, over the past 6 years.


My previous experience of real de Kooning paintings was slight (though I’ve seen plenty of reproductions, and must have been to the 1969 retrospective, even if I no longer remember it). The artist first came to my attention in the fall of 1967, when Cranston Jones, my editor at Time, told me that the artist would be having a show at Knoedler’s of recent paintings, and said that we would do a story on it, with a page of color reproductions (which had to be photographed well in advance of the show). Never having heard anything about de Kooning, I was perfectly happy to follow Jones’s lead. During this period, de Kooning was mainly painting women, but not the urban bitches that had made such a deep impression in the 1953 Janis show (publicized as it was by a “Woman” upon the cover of Art News). The ladies whom I commemorated in 1967 were country lassies, pudgy rather than angular, and rendered in dulcet pinks, golds and yellows as opposed to the muddy creams, grays & blacks of the ladies in the ‘50s (their charms heightened only by dingy areas of pink, green and blue).

In 1967, my researcher, our photographer and I were wafted via private plane (borrowed by Time Inc.’s travel department from the Rockefeller Brothers) from LaGuardia to East Hampton, there to interview the artist in his ultra-modern studio in Springs. He was drunk when we got there---no unusual condition for him, but I was innocent enough not to know this, and correspondingly offended when he showed no interest in talking to us, wanting mainly to paw me and my researcher (the photographer, being male, escaped unscathed). The only thing that de Kooning would say that could be used in our story was “I am ambitious, ambitious to be a fantastic artist.” So that was the quote we used. He ended our interview by curling up on the sill of one of his picture windows, putting his hands beneath his head, and going to sleep. Months later, I was told that he’d gotten drunk because he was scared of being interviewed by Time, but when I wrote the story, I as yet knew nothing of that, and was boiling mad when I started writing. Then I told myself that such incredible chutzpah was part of what went into making the man a great artist, and managed to rise above my rage. I attended the opening at the show at Knoedler’s, and was rewarded by the artist telling me that he’d thought my article was “not bad,” or some such grudging praise.

In early 1969, it came time to deal with de Kooning’s retrospective at MoMA. By now, I had fallen under the spell of William Rubin, chief curator of painting & sculpture at MoMA, and in one of our conversations, he’d said that he thought “Excavation” (1950) was de Kooning’s masterwork. We had kind of a rule on Time that we didn’t do more than one story on an artist unless that artist was really, really famous (we did unending stories on Picasso, but because my predecessor had already done stories on Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, I was unable to do additional stories on them—which at the time seemed like great privation). De Kooning lay midway between these two extremes in terms of popularity (or notoriety), but it seemed to me that since we’d done that big story on his bucolic girlies so recently, I could get away with lesser coverage of the retrospective. What I did was a single page, reproducing “Excavation” in color, and running a text block under it entitled “De Kooning’s Masterwork: ‘Excavation’.” (I might add that whoever indexed this story for the Art Index couldn’t accept the fact that I’d called “Excavation” de Kooning’s masterwork; to this day, if you go back to Art Index for the ‘60s, you’ll find this story indexed as “De Kooning’s Masterwork: ‘Woman’” (or does it appear this way in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature instead? Anyway, one or the other--they were both published by the same company).

Not long thereafter, I met & interviewed Clement Greenberg for a story that I was doing on Helen Frankenthaler. While I was at his apartment, the phone rang and it was Rubin, waiting downstairs to take him out to dinner. Greenberg told me come downstairs with himself and a friend of his who was visiting from California, saying that Rubin could give me a lift downtown. When I got into the car, though, Rubin invited me to join himself and the others for dinner. At this dinner, the subject of de Kooning came up. Greenberg said he’d thought some of the early paintings of men were the best paintings in the retrospective. Rubin was distinctly nonplused, saying something like, “But I thought that ‘Excavation’ was the best!” No, Greenberg insisted, it was some of the portraits of men (he was known, to his close acquaintance, for often revising his opinions about works of art, perpetually startling his friends, and creating no end of confusion for people to whom consistency mattered).


When I got to the current retrospective, I looked at all the portraits of men from the early 40s in the opening gallery, wondering which of these Greenberg had meant. I doubt that it was the “Seated Figure (Classic Male)” (ca. 1941/43), facing the entrance. That one, with its bouncy round chest & bright pink flesh, reminds me too much of the paintings that John Graham, de Kooning’s good friend, was doing at the time. Some of the other studies of men were a little more independent, but there are (or were)two still earlier studies of men, dating from 1938 or ’39, that are reproduced in Hess’s catalogue and are not in Elderfield’s show. Were these the paintings Greenberg liked? I can see how he might have—they’re truer to nature,not nearly as mannered as the slightly later studies of men at MoMA now.

Indeed, this whole opening gallery, dedicated to early work, is full of fascination & problems. Certainly, the two early, early & highly traditional still lifes, done between 1916 & 1921, before the artist came to America, are elegant and beautiful, sure evidence of mastery of draftsmanship already achieved. But the next two paintings, done in the later 20s in America, seem to me to tell only part of the story, the part that links de Kooning to de Chirico & surrealism rather than cubism. I believe that during the 30s, de Kooning was very much under the influence of Picasso, and painting the same kind of small, very angular & very Picassoid still lifes that Graham and de Kooning’s other good friend, Arshile Gorky, were making. If even one example of these paintings had been included, it would have situated the artist much more nearly where he belongs – as an artist intent, especially during this period in his life, upon merging the two traditions. Yet the other early works in this gallery all emphasize the biomorphic (surrealist) side of the equation-- in particular “Untitled (The Cow Jumps Over the Moon)” (1937-38), an outrageous steal from Miró.

The enormous (15 x 17 feet) and absorbing “Backdrop for ‘Labyrinth’” (hung in the entry space to the galleries) is for me a perfect example of the Cubo-Surrealist style that de Kooning had developed by 1946. So are “Pink Lady” and “Pink Angels,” semi-abstract & much worked-over paintings of women done around 1944 and 1945. For me they’re not enough to sustain Elderfield’s claim that by this time de Kooning had become “a major artist.” If he had died in 1945, nobody would remember him, or at most might remember him as the tail end of one period in art history, not the inauguration of another.


He did, however, help to inaugurate abstract expressionism, with the “black” paintings that he displayed at Egan in ‘48, roundly praised by both Hess (in Art News) and Greenberg (in The Nation). And the area in the second gallery of the show that brings together seven examples of this kind of painting is the chiefest joy of the entire exhibition. One spectator who was there when I was said to his wife, “This is the show --- worth the price of admission right there.” (“I agree,” I said to him.) Typically, this wondrous display is not placed front and center of this gallery – that space is reserved for a row of cluttered, busy, semi-abstract groups of figures, mostly women—while the black paintings, in all their perfection, are shunted off to one side of the gallery. But who cares? There they are, five “black” paintings along one wall, with one more at either end on adjoining walls. From left to right, they are: “Dark Pond” (1948, Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation, Los Angeles); “Painting” (1948, MoMA); “Night Square” (ca. 1949, David Geffen Collection); “Black Untitled” (1948, Metropolitan Museum of Art); “Untitled”(1948-49, Art Institute of Chicago); “Black Friday”(1948, Princeton University Art Museum); and “Orestes” (1947, Private Collection).

None of them are very large, the largest being “Dark Pond” and MoMA’s “Painting” (both about 3½ X 4½ feet). And they must present formidable problems of conservation, being painted with various doubtless ephemeral mixtures of oil and enamel on paper or cardboard or canvas mounted on wood or composition board. Moreover, not all are equally perfect—for my money, “Night Square,” “Dark Pond” and “Black Friday” come off best—but all are evidence of a perfect synthesis bringing something totally fresh and new into the world. The black fields are laced and flecked with vigorous white dancing lines that define shapes both rounded in some parts and angular in others, biomorphic & geometric, cubist & surrealist at one & the same time—crisp and clear, made by an artist evidently completely (if only for that magic moment) in command of his brush.


This is not the only attraction in this gallery; I also related strongly to the row of four black on white, equally modestly-scaled abstractions made with Sapolin enamel and a “liner’s brush” slightly later (between 1949 and 1950). But the next – third -- gallery is almost equally impressive, with the bigger and more elaborate abstractions that the artist ventured in the early 50s. The centerpiece, on the back wall, facing the entry, is “Excavation,” and on the right-hand wall hangs the Met’s “Attic” (1949). The latter, a good-sized painting (5½ x 7 feet), is also very fine, and very impressive when seen at the Met, in company only with earlier de Kooning and works by other abstract expressionists. Here, it is upstaged by “Excavation,” which is not only bigger (6½ x 8½ feet), but also much more richly colored. Where “Attic” is mainly whites and blacks, “Excavation” has opulent cream-colored paint in place of white, with many touches of red and occasional touches of blue and green to enliven it. What a remarkable painting it is (and how intelligent it was of the Art Institute of Chicago to buy it)!

Both “Attic” and “Excavation,” however, are dominated by pointed, sharp, angular shapes, outlined in black — de Kooning’s long-lasting legacy of cubism coming to the fore, but invested with negative significance as well, suggesting hostile spears or sharp knives, with figures impaled upon them. At a certain point in my life, the circular motion in “Excavation,” combined with these angular intrusions, suggested to me the famous Renaissance engraving, “Battle of the Nudes,” by Antonio Pollaiolo, as well as the kind of existentialist angst that I don’t find in Pollock.

Maybe it’s the existential angst (said by others to have been so prevalent in New York in the 50s) that led de Kooning to devote so much vigor to the figure: I have long felt that angst (aka anxiety) is particularly prevalent among artists who, without knowing how or why, sense that they themselves are out of sync with the times—and painting figures instead of abstractions is a way of employing a more historic form of expression. In any event, this same gallery has a whole wall of paintings of women, the predecessors of the “Woman” series of the ‘50s. They hang on the left-hand wall of the gallery, and my attention was drawn in particular to a row of three large ones. From left to right, they are: “Woman” (1948, Hirshhorn Museum); “Woman” (1949, private collection); and “Woman” (1949-50, University of North Carolina at Greensboro).

I confess, the only de Kooning “Woman” that I was able to relate to, in this entire show, is this 1948 one from the Hirshhorn. The more famous “Woman” paintings from the ‘50s, displayed in the fourth gallery and mostly distinguished by massive torsos, grim expressions, sharply pointed overlays of lines & huge breasts, leave me pretty calm. Moreover, with their plethora of pointed, angular shapes & the hindsight of history, they look more than ever like late cubism than they do early(or even middle period) abstract expressionism. Still, by contrast with the ladies of the '50s, this first one, from ’48, is kind of slender & girlish, has a big, warm toothy smile, and a wise, wide-open (if still somewhat Picassoid) eye. There’s a cheery large, blackish sun in the upper left-hand corner of the canvas, with spiky beams. The woman wears pink, though otherwise the color in her painting is limited to occasional dashes of pink, yellow and blue. She comes across as rather appealing and amusing, too graceful to qualify as a monster (though hardly beautiful enough to pass as a movie star).

With all of the rest of the monster ladies of the ‘50s, the best I can say for them is that for me, they’re better than the abstractions of the mid-50s in the fourth gallery, paintings like “Gotham News” (1955), “Police Gazette” (1955) and “Easter Monday” (1955-56). With the women (as Robert M. Coates, of the New Yorker, long ago observed), one finds a return to structure that helps to organize an otherwise incoherent painting, but with both the “Woman” pictures and these abstracts, the paint quality is depressing. It’s smeared on and worked over --- and over --- until the colors have mixed into each other, and the black gets into every other color to create a muddy, gooey sea of dirty paint.

I’ve heard it said that de Kooning’s paintings of the later 50s were only a caricature of his work of the early 50s, and that this later work gave birth to myriads of copyists, who constituted a new Academy. Admittedly, the broad loose brushwork of these images of the later ‘50s was easily mimicked by many members of the second generation of abstract expressionism, and their work flooded the galleries during this period (only to be swept away by the advent of pop in the ‘60s). Yet, in my opinion, most of de Kooning’s works from the later ‘50s in this exhibition, also in the fourth gallery, are superior to paintings like “Gotham News” in the simplicity of their compositions (created by only a few broad sweeps of paint), and the relative clarity of their colors (to say nothing of their nicely limited color range). The best of this group is “Suburb in Havana”(1958), with its deep blues, golden yellow, browns and off-whites, black being blessedly kept to a minimum. And there are several other pictures here very similar in both composition and color scheme: “Palisade” (1957), “Park Rosenberg” (1957) and “Merritt Parkway” (1959).


Nor would I completely dismiss the work in the fifth and sixth galleries, created after de Kooning gradually began abandoning the dirt & crowds of the big city for the high skies and sandy beaches of Long Island. He settled for good in Springs in 1963, but his palette had already begun to undergo a dramatic change, away from darker & so often muddier colors, toward paler, more translucent ones. These radiant pinks, baby blues & yellows make very pleasant the contemplation of two abstracts in the fifth gallery, “Door to the River” (1960) and “Rosy Fingered Dawn at Louse Point” (1963). Some of the larger bronze sculptures in this same gallery, from the 70s, are also appealing. I could even work up some enthusiasm for a couple of the ultra-pink country cuties, such as “Clam Diggers” (1963), displayed in the sixth gallery—though I couldn’t achieve the same pitch of enthusiasm that I seem to have managed back in 1967. On the other hand, the series of abstract paintings from the ‘70s in the fifth gallery are indescribably awful --- weak, muddled, empty and melodramatic at the same time. What a sad commentary on human nature they afford---how the herd will stumble blindly ahead to admire (and acquire) what they have been told is the work of a master, long after almost all of his truly great work has been done.


That is to say, almost all of his truly great work, but the seventh & last gallery in the show, covering the period in the artist’s life between 1981 and 1987, still contains a few lovely works. During these years, the artist was flying increasingly on automatic pilot. He was slipping into what many people think was Alzheimer’s, but now is believed to have been some other form of dementia (after 1990, he seems to have painted not at all). Most of these late paintings are peaceful, with (in the best of them) just a relatively small number of very narrow, short curved & colored lines – combinations of pink, perhaps, blue, black and/or yellow – inscribed upon a pure white field. I couldn’t feel very strongly about these paintings back in ’94, when I attended the National Gallery show in Washington with Elizabeth Higdon, but she liked some of them and now I’ve come around to liking some of them as well. I can’t guarantee that I liked the same ones that she did, but the ones that stood out for me were “Untitled VI” (1983, Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection) and [no title] (1984, Private Collection). I was reminded of the lines from “Macbeth:” “Duncan is in his grave. After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.”


On the way home from my second visit to the de Kooning show, I stopped at Michael Rosenfeld, which is presenting “Evolution in Action” (through October 29). The idea, as explained in the press release, is to document the change from the styles of the 30s (realism or surrealism) to the styles of the 50s and 60s (principally abstract expressionism or its heirs). To this end, the gallery displays earlier and later works by 8 abstract expressionists (Baziotes, de Kooning, Beauford Delaney, Adolph Gottlieb, Hofmann, Lee Krasner, Norman Lewis, Richard Pousette-Dart and Theodoros Stamos) together with 2 surrealists who never quite made it over the cusp into ab-ex (Boris Margo, Charles Seliger), and 1 artist sometimes credited with being an abstract expressionist when he wasn’t really (Mark Tobey). Although all the pictures are on the small side, there’s lots of good work here, which makes the show well worth seeing. In no case are both entries by a single artist of an inferior quality, but in 6 out of 11 instances, the later work isn’t up to the standard of the earlier work. Thus the show in effect boils down to a critique of aging: do we necessarily feel that an artist improves, the older s/he gets? The answer is no—at least, if the work on view represents the best that the artist was capable of (fortunately, we all know this is not so—galleries can only exhibit what's on the market at a certain point in time).

The late works that stood out for me here were those by Delaney (a beautiful all-over yellow piece, 1963), Gottlieb, Hofmann (a marvelous red, yellow and tan painting called “Candor,” 1962), Pousette-Dart (an allover tapestry-like painting dominated by blue, 1969-70), and Baziotes (“Moon World,” a delicately floating image from 1956). Among the early works that I went for were Lewis’s “Untitled (Jazz Club),” (a jaunty little bluesy composition with two cubist-inflected pianos, 1945); Delaney (a 1945 post-Impressionist still life with a bird, bowl of fruit & African statuette); the Gottlieb pictograph; the powerful untitled Krasner “little painting” from 1949; Margo’s untitled 1938 blue-and-gold oil and decalcomania; the Stamos (“Ancestral Myth,” 1947); the Seliger (“Internal Space,” 1945); and the Tobey (“Spanish Reader (aka Spanish Primer),” 1949).

The most fun of this show is the three de Koonings. The third one is yet another one of those hyper-pink East Hampton ladies, this one a small version from 1971, wobbly and indecisive. The first is a veristic little effort, ca. 1941, called “Self Portrait with Gull and Nautical Theme, mural study for the S. S. Andrew Jackson,” more reminiscent of de Chirico than anybody else . The middle one is the real gem. Done in 1947, and called “Self Portrait in the Wilderness,” it depicts the artist totally nude, set against a cubist-like chartreuse expanse with tan shapes to one side, and a singularly nervous expression on his face. It's like everybody's worst nightmare come to life.
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