The MoMA exhibition, de Kooning: A Retrospective, shows some 200 de Kooning paintings, sculptures and drawings, an exhaustive, exhilarating survey of one of the most innovative, famous painters in modern art. Abstract and figurative paintings hang side-by-side, interact and sometimes jostle each other as they convey the enormity of de Kooning's prolific career.
Willem de Kooning. Seated Man, c. 1939. Oil and charcoal on canvas, 38 1/4" by 34 1/4". Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Washington, DC. Gift of the artist through the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation, 1972.
Because de Kooning paintings involved drawing, painting, scraping off the paint and repeating the process, sometimes over the course of years (as in one of his most famous paintings, Woman I), his output is all the more remarkable. For me, the single word that captures de Kooning's style is pentimento, classically described by Lillian Hellman:
"Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman's dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter "repented," changed his mind."
But de Kooning doesn't repent: he shares his mind as he thinks with paintbrush in hand. He wants us to know his pentimenti.
But I'm ahead of myself. This retrospective is so comprehensive and overwhelming that I'll parse it into the eras used by its curators.
Early Work: 1916-1945
Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) was born in Rotterdam, and received schooling in fine and commercial art. One of the earliest surviving de Kooning artworks is his Bowl, Pitcher and Jug, which took some 600 hours, an entire year of work laboring two days a week. What diligence and skill at 17 years old!
At 22, de Kooning emigrated to New York in 1926 as a stowaway aboard a freighter (for an extraordinary biography of de Kooning, I highly recommend the Pulitzer prize-winning de Kooning: An American Master by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan).
Willem de Kooning. Bowl, Pitcher and Jug. Conte crayon and charcoal on paper, ca. 1921. 18 1/2" by 24 1/4". Metropolitan Museum of Art.
de Kooning became part of a group of New York painters who didn't form a movement per se - there were no consistent stylistic traits - but knew each other and socialized. They included Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Robert Motherwell (1915-1991), Franz Kline (1910-62), Arshile Gorky (1904-48) and Stuart Davis (1892-1964).
Willem de Kooning. Untitled (A Cow Jumps Over the Moon) c. 1937-38. Oil on masonite, 20 1/2" by 36 5/8". Harvard Art Museums. Fogg Art Museum.
At this time, de Kooning was heavily influenced by the semi-abstract, flat patterns in Matisse paintings and de Chirico artwork, as seen in in his Untitled (Cow Jumps Over the Moon). Other de Kooning paintings from this time - many of which are privately held - introduce the de Kooning palette: pink/coral, sunflower yellow, and swimming-pool green, occasionally punctuated by turquoise.
From 1937 to 1944, de Kooning embarked on a series of paintings of men; these are among his earliest figurative paintings. Typical of the series is Seated Man (top of page), in which a man stares into space, unengaged and bored (you nearly hear him strumming his fingers on the tabletop). You know where de Kooning's hand has been: he first sketched in charcoal, painted, and then dug into that wet surface to re-position the head, back, and chair. An abandoned jug, now an afterthought, sits atop a table whose legs and top surface have also been moved.
One of the joys of a
Willem de Kooning. Portrait of Elaine, c. 1940. Pencil on paper.
retrospective is the juxtaposition of disparate styles in which an artist concurrently worked. Nowhere is this comparison more startling than in the 1940 Portrait of Elaine, showing draughtsmanship skill worth of Ingres, and in the circa 1940 Seated Woman, one of the earliest de Kooning paintings of women.
The Seated Woman has arms seemingly disconnected from her body and legs with no feet, but despite this ambiguity, it is clearly Elaine.
Willem de Kooning. Seated Woman, c. 1940. Oil and charcoal on masonite, 54 1/16" by 36". Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Who else in the history of art (forget Picasso -- he's too easy) was able to explore such different styles at the same time?