“Woman I” from the Museum of Modem Art in New York, on which de Kooning worked from 1950 to 1952, is recognized as the breakthrough in the new series. He went on to press his insights and present the female figure “as a landscape” (in 1954-55) or as what? – an explosion, perhaps, in “Woman VI” (1953). These figures at once ferocious and erotic, lavishly hued, are as seductive as they are forbidding.
Figure 4. Inside of Museum of Modern Art
Picasso had long since deconstructed the female face and figure
De Kooning reassembles the parts into a menacing, promising whole of confrontation, with each figure crowding the canvas and demanding our intimidated attention. From the beginning they were attacked for their supposed misogyny, as they surely will be now. (“That ferocious woman he painted didn’t come from living with me,” said his wife Elaine. “It began when he was three years old.”) But there is humor and great ambiguity in the works as well. De Kooning cut mouths out of magazine advertisements and pasted them playfully onto his canvases. He confessed that in fact “many of my paintings of women have been self-portraits.” Somehow the results continue to command, testifying to the female form and presence as the primal fact of de Kooning’s life, the theme, along with landscape, worthiest of his creative energy.
Other, brilliantly hued, almost entirely abstract compositions from the mid-50’s, such as “Composition,” “Gotham News” or “Belize Gazette,” seem almost a welcome relief when presented in the same gallery with de Kooning’s women. With their broad, free brush strokes and great swaths of contrasting color, their remarkable energy and balance, these paintings in many ways represent the apogee of Abstract Expressionism. They carry forward the achievement of the Art Institute of Chicago’s great “Excavation,” also in the show, which in 1950 had been de Kooning’s largest canvas to date.
On a creamy ivory base, incised with black enamel swirls and intimated human forms, flashed with violet, ruby and jade, cerulean blue and gold, and centered on what keeps insisting it may be an evocation of the American flag, “Excavation” takes one deep – going deeper – into things, whether in the earth or the mind or the story. An all-over painting a la Jackson Pollock, it is nevertheless clearly centered. Stripped of all literal reference and fully dependent on emotive expression, it is nevertheless a highly deliberate, intellectual achievement. In it we see most clearly the creative tension that persists throughout de Kooning’s career – thematically between figure and abstraction, stylistically between intellection and emotion, coloristically between the joy of the rainbow and the drama of black. (Marla Prather tells us, remarkably, that the artist got the idea for the painting after seeing the Italian neorealist film “Bitter Rice.”)
After the strident circus colors of the “abstract urban landscapes” of the mid-1950’s, as de Kooning once called them, he turned in the late 1950’s to outdoor scenes and seasons. He reduced his pictorial vocabulary but, with broad swaths of brown or blue laid on by house painter’s brushes, could suggest the architecture of a suburb in Havana or evoke a souvenir of Toulouse. Driving from the city to Long Island, he records the blinding golden light. The icy blue and dirty gray of “February” (1957) is lightened by a distant rose, while “September Morn” (1959) has all the feel of someone standing on the beach at dawn. “Ruth’s Zowie” (1957) summarizes this period with its heightened scale, jubilant tone and an elemental articulation that recalls the black and white abstractions of Franz Kline, whom de Kooning considered his closest friend. Indeed, one of the most thrilling moments in this exhibition is the opportunity to stand at the doorway between the paintings of the mid- and late 50’s, looking back to the city behind and forward to the countryside ahead.
Willem de Kooning in his studio
At the midpoint of his career, and with pivotal consequences for his art, de Kooning moved in 1963 from New York City to Springs, near Easthampton, Long Island. There, with special support from Joseph Hirshhorn, he designed his own studio and began to recreate himself in the surrounding atmosphere of light and water. The gestural style for which he had become famous took on a new fluidity and ease. Often mixing safflower oil into his oils to thin them, he seemed almost to be painting under water. With pearly, translucent colors, he began another series of women in the mid- and late 60’s. These range from “Clam Diggers” of 1963, one of the smallest oils on view, through “Woman, Sag Harbor” (1964) to “Woman with a Hat” (1966) and “Woman in a Landscape III” (1968). “Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented,” he had once said, and now Rubenesque flesh tones are everywhere. For de Kooning, who had been dismayed by the public reaction to his 1950’s series, these were meant to be pastoral paintings, but it is hard not to find them cloying, despite their evident humor. (Before the celebrated “Clam Diggers” one even thinks of Gibson girls.)
In general, it has to be said that this period was a low point for,the artist
He loved his new home and studio and told Harold Rosenberg, “It would be very hard for me now to paint any other place but here.” But his reputation had for some years been in decline. Robert Rauschenberg had rubbed out one of his drawings, and Roy Lichtenstein had openly parodied his gestural style. As Pop and Op and minimal art won the day, the old master was widely disparaged. And indeed the paintings from the early 70’s such as “Pastorale” or “Flowers, Mary’s Table” today seem merely decorative or even self-indulgent. It was as though the Long Island light and landscape, reminiscent of his homeland, had in fact spoiled de Kooning.
- In 1968 he returned to Holland for the first time to attend a major retrospective of his work in Amsterdam. Received there as a long-lost native son, he was less well treated by critics in London and New York. But he continued to chart his own course and, encouraged by Henry Moore to develop his new interest in clay sculpture, by 1971 he was making life-size sculpture, an interest he pursued for several years thereafter.
- Returning to painting in 1975, de Kooning developed an entirely new style that is perhaps the greatest revelation of this exhibition. His paint, while still fluid, regains some of its opacity. Forms, though turbulently juxtaposed, regain solidity. Color ranges more widely and is often thrillingly contrasted – pink and orange and flamingo juxtaposed, blue and violet washed with green, aquamarine and indigo side by side with black. Discernible forms are rare, though there is clearly a small blue sailboat near the center of “North Atlantic Light” (1977).
North Atlantic Light
- In the exhibition’s lavishly illustrated catalogue, Ms. Prather calls these paintings “monumental abstract landscapes,” and with good reason. One senses sea and sky, or a high blue horizon or luxuriant fauna by the water’s edge. But the larger feeling is that of fecund and verdant nature, at times a menace and at other times a joy. It is at all times a world refined rather than invented, with a striking contrast between the urban abstractions of the late 50’s and these natural abstractions (as I would prefer to call them).
- Then, in the exhibition’s final gallery, comes the lyrical, elegiac coda. As if aware of his impending decline (de Kooning has since succumbed entirely to Alzheimer’s disease), the artist strips his canvas, covers it with a white ground, and then lays on spare, beautiful ribbons of color in undulating forms which dance and sing to the eye’s delight. The heavy impasto of the previous decade’s paintings is gone, the whipping line and rounded forms of the 1940’s return, and a masterful career of almost 50 years concludes delectably. “He’s really come full circle,” a young friend commented to me about these last paintings from 1983 to 1986.
It is sad that so distinguished an artist cannot appreciate the tribute now paid him. This exhibition puts to rest the notion that his career collapsed in the 60’s or the 70’s or the 80’s. There is rather a remarkable pattern of ebb and flow in his work, as several critics have pointed out, a gathering of ideas and concentration followed by release and expansion toward a new beginning. As Neo-expressionism has given way to Neogeo and other contemporary trends, de Kooning’s distaste for Pop and Op art has also become less objectionable to critics and the public alike. We have new reason to value his thoughtful breadth and stylistic invention. Like the great European masters of the first half of the century, Picasso and Braque and Matisse, he never felt he could sever his art entirely from representative form. (When the critic Clement Greenberg dogmatically assured him that it was impossible to paint the human face any more in 1949, de Kooning shrewdly answered, “That’s right, and it’s impossible not to.”) Like the major painters who appeared in Europe after the war, Bacon and Giacometti and Dubuffet, he drew in a new way on anxiety and humor as resources.
Unlike all these other figures, however, and consistent with his abstract expressionist contemporaries, he loved above all the feeling of paint and the feelings paint could convey. He was an existentialist without the degree, experimental and self-doubting, “a slipping glimpser,” as he once said. But he was also a humanist, who valued the great painting of the past far more than that of the present. And if his work is now contributing to a revival of interest in abstract painting, it is in good measure because his work so generously demonstrates that all painting, indeed all art, involves abstraction. “Other painters call themselves abstract expressionists,” he said in 1952. “Me, I want hallelujah painting.”
A full retrospective of the achievement would have to include his prints, drawings and sculpture as well. But anyone who loves painting will be lastingly grateful to Ms. Prather, David Sylvester, the critic, and Nicholas Serota of the Tate Gallery in London for their dedication and skill in mounting the exhibition. And anyone who has been fascinated by de Kooning for years may now embark on the whole journey with him. “Just because you’re getting older doesn’t mean you’re doing it better,” he said in 1983. “But you can’t stop either, or you’ll be lost. So you’ll go ahead, even though you don’t know where you’re going, because you never know. You just know how to leave from where you’ve been.”
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