Were he alive to see it, I’m sure Willem de Kooning would love his current retrospective at MoMA. On view through January 9th, the exhibition is any artist’s dream; a comprehensive chronological arrangement of his best work organized by curator John Elderfield, all spectacularly hung and arranged in a world-class institution. It’s almost redundant to say the show looks great.
The exhibition reaffirms de Kooning’s legacy as one of the great Abstract Expressionist masters, though the crux of the presentation sometimes reads more like myth-building than historicizing. Introductory wall text tells viewers the show will reveal versatility extending beyond his best-known Abstract Expressionist paintings, a premise that only partly holds up. Sure, he painted a lot more than those fucked up women he’s so famous for, but he wasn’t exactly making a practice of defining new movements like a Pablo Picasso or Marcel Duchamp. If this show demonstrates anything, it’s that de Kooning’s predilection for certain combinations of pale yellow, pink, blue and black can create monotony where there is none.
These words sound harsh when applied to such a skilled painter, and rightfully so; spun differently, de Kooning’s palette is a unifying force throughout the exhibition, not proof that he failed to experiment enough as a painter. Still, the latter evaluation reflects my own discontent with the ridiculous clichés used to elevate modern masters. Surely it’s no accident that nearly every retrospective of an abstract “master” displays a few realistically rendered drawings, as if to validate the rest of their practice; the first wall of the de Kooning retrospective features early realist still lifes and a delicately rendered portrait of his wife.
They’re fine pieces, but they tell us more about the artist’s life than his versatility. Biography can work in a retrospective, but when MoMA’s show offers up nearly 200 paintings without even mentioning de Kooning’s fight with alcoholism, the attempt seems halfhearted.
Nearly every other work, though, makes a convincing case for its inclusion. As the show traces the progression from de Kooning’s early career to late paintings made during his struggle with Alzheimer’s, the stylistic connections between different parts of his career become clear. “Untitled,” an abstract watercolor from 1936, appears overly cautious; in his Abstract Expressionist paintings of women in the 50s, though, we see that caution give way to ambition. The same sinuous lines, deliberate and precise, appear in each, though in the later works they are transformed into that famous violence, palpable and suddenly omnipresent, against the female form.
That continuity of gesture is critical to understanding de Kooning’s oeuvre, and it demonstrates a flaw in the dominant historical narrative of Abstract Expressionism. De Kooning’s work is too often described as giving physical form, through gesture and scale, to the aggression and power of male-dominated painting in the 50s. A studied examination of many of his better known figurative paintings from the 40s and 50s, though, shows that the way he applied paint to the canvas was careful and even delicate, and certainly anything but savage.
By the mid-60s, de Kooning’s work becomes more expressionistic—and less cautious—with generally positive results. The exceptions, though, dominate the room: blobby figurative bronze sculptures oozing meaninglessly from a series of ludicrous pedestals. These cheeseball pieces demand nothing at all from the viewer, and easily rival his notorious paintings of the 80s in badness.
In many ways de Kooning’s later work seems at odds with the rest of his career, which was defined by a consistently calculated and occasionally even formulaic use of paint. This is still the case in the 60s and 70s, but by the time one reaches the final room of 80s paintings the monotony is oppressive. Far from being the versatile painter jumping from movement to movement, these late paintings—which many dismissed as tangential to his best work—reaffirm de Kooning’s enduring use of undulating line, and consistent palette choices. Counterintuitively, it’s the best argument for those works’ importance I’ve seen made.
(Top image: Willem De Kooning, “Woman” (detail, 1950). Courtesy the Willem de Kooning Foundation)