The de Kooning Retrospective has opened at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. I had an opportunity to see this exhibition with an artist pal, Annette Margulies.
Her observations and knowledge of the Dutch American abstract expressionist were impressive. It was fun to put our heads together to see what new things we could discover about his work & perhaps take away to our own. One thing was apparent throughout: we could all look at de Kooning's work in books and catalogs. However, the awesome power that each painting and sculpture holds can only be imparted and felt by seeing them and allowing yourself to be enveloped by their presence. You could spend days absorbing this exhibit, which comes down on January 9, 2012.
This show fills the entire sixth floor. The curatorial comments accompanying his work suggest that de Kooning prepared studies and drawings for his paintings, a surprise to me who thought that he had been a spontaneous action-painter very early on. He apparently was not until the last 10-15 years before he died! He was also known for burying words -- whether from his own writing into the canvas or from collage or transfers -- into his paintings, much like Twombly.
More than 200 paintings, sculpture and drawings were loaned or pulled from MoMA's own vast collection for this retrospective. Pieces came from many museums and private collections around the globe. We'll probably not see such an important collection of his work in one grand space like this for many decades to come.
The exhibit starts with some of de Kooning's earliest work. He was a photo-realist and successful commercial artist in the Netherlands. A few recovered drawings and paintings are shown. That early work is technically good, albeit boring by comparison to his later masterpieces. Then the show focuses on his drawings, early paintings (you can spot the influence of Picasso and Gorky here) and transition after Black Mtn., to the birth of the Woman series (I think that MoMA exhibits all of the Woman paintings and I had no idea how extensive or numerous these were before visiting the show). There are scores of Women paintings in this series.
One of the highlights of the show is an immense (about 17' wide) painting in charcoal and calcimine (?) that de Kooning prepared for a dancer friend for $50 (!) with the help of another artist (I think, Milton Resnick) for a theatrical stage set. He based this piece, it is believed, on Judgment Day. Right around this time, de Kooning was painting the large pink paintings, like Pink Angels, and about to move into his massive B&W work, like Excavation and Attic. This massive piece is hung apart from the other galleries displaying de Kooning's work: MoMA rightly gave the piece plenty of breathing room.
The exhibit leads you into his work during the '70's. You can see that he was experimenting with earlier collage techniques and discovered that "the landscape is in the woman", much as "the woman was in the landscape." He dabbled with sculpture and you can trace his fluidity in the three-dimensional work. Lastly, we are lead into paintings from the '80's. The curator cut off the show at 1987, when de Kooning's worsening dementia was believed to have affected his work. I'm not sure I agreed with this. Arguably, this last body of work was becoming less lush, dense: but the focus on line and mark making, filling the canvases with marvelous pure shapes and expressive lines are rich, dominating. Maybe, like Rothko, de Kooning was finally getting down to what it was all about, that elusive core.