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Willem de Kooning: Embodying the City

Willem de Kooning Excavation 1950 Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York

The current Willem de Kooning exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art confirms, yet again, that the bodies of work of the major abstract expressionists—all cherry-picked for the institution’s “Abstract Expressionist New York” last year—should, ideally, be seen in their (more or less) entirety, as large-scale installations. This is, perhaps, what made that “AbEx” show, which recently travelled to the Art Gallery of Ontario, so unsatisfying for some. The power of de Kooning’s Woman I is discrete and undeniable, but view the painting as one in a suite of six, and with the knowledge of what predated it and what succeeded it (including more Woman paintings, with disused doors as canvases), and you get something exceedingly more meaningful.

Besides Pollock, de Kooning is, of course, the most famous member of the New York School, that influential mid-century abstract-painting group that branded the city as the world capital of modern art. But a present-day retrospective of de Kooning seems to embody the spirit of the city just as well as the work ever did. De Kooning’s major step forward was his legendary black-and-white enamel paintings, which comprised his first solo show for a commercial gallery and his resolute entrée into the scene. These works stem from an American vernacular this Dutch immigrant imbibed early on in his career, notably as a muralist for the Works Progress Administration. As many have pointed out, they resemble graffiti, still so prevalent in New York, and forever indicative of the cross-ethnic visual dialogues that define the city. The enamels, and the following period in which the famous Excavation of 1950 was completed, prefigure Keith Haring as much as the Woman paintings prefigure Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“Flesh is the reason why oil painting was invented,” said de Kooning, and he made sure his own efforts with the medium typified this. It follows that the artist had an attachment to pink and brown—so important to modern masters such as Monet, Picasso and Matisse. They are indeed, for de Kooning, literal flesh and scat, but also vehicles for extreme imaginative exploration. And they modulate as he gets older, into the birthday-cake-icing palette of his 1960s and 1970s works. Then, they are purged again, into black, with his sculptures, and into white, with his elegant, minimal last series—an arguable return to the enamels, but, in contrast to their chunky, architectural bravado, a moving relinquishment of painterly physicality.


This is part of a series of postings by assistant editor David Balzer, who is in New York for the fall season. For some earlier articles in this series, continue reading here and here.

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