The first de Kooning art show, held in 1948 at New York’s Charles Egan Gallery, was comprised of ten paintings. Historically, this art show has been labeled a failure, but that’s too black and white: de Kooning’s exhibition received little press; three abstract paintings did sell, one of which was Painting (1948) to MoMA; and all reviews but one were favorable.
Sadly, the unfavorable review was from Clement Greenberg, a leading, loud, and influential art critic. He commented that
Willem de Kooning. Painting, 1948. Enamel and oil on canvas, 42 5/8″ by 56 1/8″. MoMA, New York.
there did “not seem to be an identifiable image in any” of these black, white, tan and gray de Kooning works, concluding,”de Kooning is an outright ‘abstract’ painter.”
That’s a fascinating snippet in the history of art, given that de Kooning had long been (and still was) painting figurative works. John Elderfield, the Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA, speculates why de Kooning didn’t display these figurative paintings in his art show: Jackson Pollock’s “drip” paintings had just been publicly exhibited, and de Kooning thought his abstract paintings were more mature. And more likely to stand up against Pollock paintings.
De Kooning started Painting (1948) by tracing sections of his figurative drawings, transferring them, and applying both enamel sign paint and oil paint. While Painting (1948) does initially appear to be a mass of generic, amorphous and nameless shapes, further inspection suggests an interior – isn’t that the top of a table and its legs in the lower right? de Kooning chose black and white to confound figure and ground, and succeeds.
Willem de Kooning. Excavation, 1950. Oil and enamel on canvas, 6’9″ by 8’4″. The Art Institute of Chicago.
According to fellow New York painters, Excavation began as a multifigure composition; it ended, though, as the one of his most famous paintings, the seminal work of de Kooning’s 1940s abstraction. Here, black outlined-shapes read as fishes, torsos, birds, noses, jaws; the seemingly ever-present eyes and teeth float around the canvas. De Kooning commented that paintings shouldn’t have “hot spots”, or areas in which the viewer lingers and stares. And there aren’t any – your eyes dart continually around to absorb the frenzied energy of Excavation.
In the bottom foreground is a door, above which and to the right is a large finger with a triangle of nail polish. Of his style at this time, de Kooning said, “I paint this way because I can keep putting more and more things in – drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space.” Then he removes and scrapes paint, adds more, and continues until he unearths what he wants. Excavation is a well-titled painting.
This masterpiece, along with three other abstract paintings, was selected in 1950 for inclusion in the 25th Venice Biennale. With completion of Excavation, de Kooning immediately started working on his third series of women paintings, which proved to be some of the most controversial paintings in his career.
Next: de Kooning’s famous paintings of Women.