From The Economist
A mix of fear and pleasure
Fortify yourself before visiting “de Kooning: A Retrospective” at MoMA in New York. Even on a weekday at noon, with the show open only to members, the galleries were packed and a security guard kept turning away gatecrashers. Crowds are to be expected, as this is the first big museum exhibition devoted to the full career of Willem de Kooning, a Dutch-American artist who died in 1997 at the age of 92. Comprehensive and mesmerising, this show is strong stuff. Don’t come on an empty stomach.
Born in Rotterdam, de Kooning emigrated in his early 20s to New York, where he found work as a house painter, illustrator and window dresser before turning fully to art. His earliest abstract paintings—a modest set of interior scenes completed between 1937 and 1939—are a delicate series, not unlike paper cut-outs, which anticipates the black-and-white abstractions of the following decade. “The shapes, they’re all there, but they haven’t exploded yet,” aptly observed a woman to her companion.
The works that follow, completed during the early 1940s, show de Kooning to be a maestro of charcoal. He works the medium into hairy curls, tipsy graphs, smudges, swirls and clouds. In a work like 1944’s “Pink Lady”, charcoal is simultaneously a primary element, a finishing touch, and a useful trick for conveying what it might feel like to fall over drunk, hit your head on a coffee table, and glance up to find a naked woman perched on a chair in front of you. The painting is a mood, a picture, and a hazmat sign all at once. As with charcoal, so too with a sign painter’s tool called a “liner’s brush”, which de Kooning used to produce swooping lines that range from sleek to pancake-batter drippy.
The artist’s third series of Woman paintings, composed in New York between 1950 and 1953 (and including the notorious “Woman I”), feature subjects that are part female, part swamp monster. With their asymmetrically melting features—one eye here, half a set of teeth there—these women take on the disquieting appearance of decomposing corpses. Nature does ugly, fantastical things to human bodies, and so does de Kooning. The paintings are exhilarating in the way that a rollercoaster is exhilarating, with fear playing a major part in the pleasure. At the time Lee Krasner, a fellow abstract-expressionist painter (and Jackson Pollock’s wife), found these paintings to be vessels of de Kooning’s “hatred and hostility toward the female” and rejected them as “offensive in every possible sense”.
The 1970s were a time of exuberant experimentation for the artist, and the works on display are a party mix of lithographs, charcoal drawings, bronze sculptures (more lady swamp monsters) and giant oil paintings in unexpectedly jolly hues.
De Kooning’s controversial late paintings, which deck the final gallery, are a bright and puzzling bunch. Painted between 1981 and 1987, as the artist suffered from worsening dementia, they are inviting and elusive by turn. The museum describes this as a period during which “drastically simplified” techniques led to “what are effectively drawn paintings in a limited colour range.” Though he was enfeebled, de Kooning’s final works blast away any theories of serious artistic decline. Regarding these pieces, Oliver Sacks once said, “Style is the deepest part of one’s being, and may be preserved, almost to the last, in a dementia.”
Part of the exhibition’s appeal is its exhaustive (and exhausting) quality. To properly absorb these 200 works, consider coming more than once.
de Kooning: A Retrospective is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through January 9th 2012