With so many thoughtful and well written reviews already available of the MOMA’s blockbuster retrospective of De Kooning, it is easy to give myself permission to take a more personal jaunt through the seven decades’ worth of work on display. John Elderfield‘s curatorial mastery is in how he has assembled this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to track and study De Kooning’s evolution as a painter in a way never before possible. I have studied De Kooning for most of my life and yet I feel like I just now really get what he was doing. That’s humbling but it is also a treasured gift. As Roberta Smith described the show in her New York Times review, “It not only positions de Kooning far forward in a 20th-century American cavalcade of stars, it turns his career into a kind of Rose Bowl float of creative exuberance and invention.”
But that doesn’t mean I am in a state of rapture. In many ways this was a show that brought me to far extremes of response, all in the context of acknowledging the enormousness of De Kooning’s influence on the flow of art in my lifetime. He was the primary influence on most of my art teachers in the 1970s, and coming to terms with his work has been a consistent theme in my artmaking life. Some of these works were so breathlessly exquisite I became faint and had to sit down (like the cases of the “Uffizi effect” reported by James Elkins in his book Pictures and Tears.) But other paintings were frustrating and exacerbating.
I now have a much better sense of how different De Kooning’s intentions are from my own. For all his extravagant expressiveness, he still had a connection with form—primarily the body—that permeates so much of his work. Bodies are everywhere, much the way bodies are in almost every painting by Cecily Brown and Lucien Freud. This quote by De Kooning captures that pervasive orientation well: “I’m not interested in ‘abstracting’ or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line, color. I paint this way because I am can keep putting more and more things in—drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space.”
De Kooning is also famously quoted as saying, “content is a glimpse.” And as Sebastian Smee wrote in his review: “What a carnal painter de Kooning was, and how mischievous. His other famous quote – “Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented’’ – should never be far from your mind as you traverse this show, which bobbles with body parts slippingly glimpsed.”
The early works were revelatory. De Kooning was brooding, struggling with where this was going in a way you can see right on the wall. His color sense is more acidic than the effortlessly flowing sensibility he exhibits in his later work. Smee captures some of this struggle:
In these early pictures, you feel him wrestling with problems of space, trying both to compress it and carve it out, now with line, now with color, now with the paint’s facture (its surface qualities), with erasures and ghost contours, with smudges, scrapes and swipes. There’s a profound awkwardness to the results. But you know as you look at these works that the artist is in the grip of something, and murderously close to finding it.
And then there is the still notorious issue of the Woman paintings. They never spoke to me. While seeing them in context was helpful I was still in aversion. I like the words Smee used in his review to describe these pieces–“histrionic, hectoring, unresolved, unlovable.” Smee’s recent tweet captured my sentiments exactly:
Can you love #deKooning – really LOVE him – as I do, without loving Woman I, II, II, IV, and V? My dilemma, my pain.
But the high points in this exhibit are high. So so high. Rosy-fingered Dawn at Louise Point. Montauk I. Pirate. Untitled, 1977 (owned by the Mnuchin Family.) The way those paintings made me feel is so exquisite that I will have to come back to see the show again before it closes in January.
Tomorrow: Part 2.