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Glimpsing de Kooning at MoMA

Posted on 23 September 2011

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by Helen A. Harrison


Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) famously referred to himself as “a slipping glimpser,” a painter who paradoxically felt most comfortable when he was off balance. “When I’m falling,” he said, “I am doing all right. And when I am slipping, I say, ‘Hey, this is very interesting.’” He made that remark in 1960, roughly midway through a seven-decade career that is now the subject of a long-overdue survey at the Museum of Modern Art. To paraphrase the artist, it’s very interesting that for decades he slipped past the glimpse of the normally eagle-eyed MoMA curators, who focused instead on his contemporaries among the New York School vanguard. This show redresses that imbalance.

Balance is a metaphor for the exhibition itself, and (notwithstanding his disclaimer) for de Kooning’s artistic enterprise. The show maintains its equilibrium by presenting his seesaw shifts from representation to abstraction in parallel rather than divergent courses. The earliest works, from his native Holland and soon after his emigration in 1926, make it clear that even when he was working as a commercial artist and decorator he was simultaneously a skillful academic draftsman and a keen observer of modern art trends. With equal assurance he could render a still life accurately, or abstract it à la Matisse.

In the 1930s the WPA Federal Art Project enabled de Kooning to quit his day job and concentrate on fine art. Alternating between figure study and non-objective formalism, his paintings, mural studies and drawings of the period continue a dialogue that aims to resolve this dichotomy — an endeavor that fortunately never succeeded. At a time when purists insisted on an either-or approach, he was unwilling to take sides. In 1947-48, when the argument was at its most intense, he was painting stark black and white abstractions like Orestes and Dark Pond while also coming out with his second Woman series, represented here by Pink Lady, Woman and several works on paper.

I’m far from alone in believing that 1948-1955 marks the high point of de Kooning’s achievement, and this exhibition hasn’t changed my mind. The masterpieces from those years are here in force, including Excavation, Attic and Asheville, supreme demonstrations of his ability to combine observation, sensation and invention, and six of the monstrous (and monstrously controversial) Woman paintings that to this day divide de Kooning’s admirers and detractors. Volumes have already been written about these grotesques; suffice it to say that they’ve never looked better than they do here, lined up like beauty pageant contestants from Hell.

For whatever psychological or aesthetic reasons, the distorted female figure continued to preoccupy de Kooning for decades, but in tandem with compositions that lack overt figurative references. Not that the real world was excluded from canvases like Gotham News and Easter Monday, in which he retained offset text and photos from the newspapers he used to blot the surface. As with the Women, where schematic but recognizable body parts give coherence to what otherwise would look like disorganized explosions of paint, these fragments anchor the abstractions in familiar imagery.

It seems to me that de Kooning’s entire career was a balancing act. Or maybe a pendulum, with its regular alternation from one extreme to the other, is a better analogy. As visitors progress through the selection of some 200 paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints in MoMA’s brilliantly installed sixth-floor galleries, the artist’s clock winds down and the swings become less pronounced, until they resolve in a series of biomorphic abstractions that distill the essence of his vision. Toward the end, his glimpse slipped ever more inward. But this exhibition doesn’t tell the whole story of that interior journey. The curator, John Elderfield, chose to exclude work from 1988-90, the last three years of de Kooning’s productive life, when he painted more than 50 canvases while succumbing to senile dementia. A full retrospective assessment won’t be possible until those paintings are seen.

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