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Willem de Kooning at Mnuchin Gallery

Is there anything new that can be said about the achievement of Willem de Kooning, arguably abstract-expressionism’s greatest practitioner? Born in Rotterdam in 1904, he studied art at night at the esteemed Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques. In 1926 he arrived in America as a ship’s stowaway, settling in New York. Making a living as a commercial painter, including the painting of houses, de Kooning also worked on developing a singular style of his own. He found recognition late--his first solo show occurred when he was 44 years old. His work tends to bifurcate into two positions--an interest in depicting women and an interest in exploring the possibilities of pure abstraction. Determinedly messy in his output, de Kooning nonetheless also evidences his Dutch academic training in his drawings, as well as an ongoing affection for paint’s innate qualities as paint. His is an inspired materialism, fueled by a great love of painting and a persistent interest in girls. In both bodies of work, sensuality is prime; the abstractions are thick with impasto, while the women maintain a startling, if also aggressive, attractiveness. Still, as great as de Kooning is--the adjective does not represent an overstatement--his influence has been pernicious. Art school faculty continue to follow his overflowing freedoms as if 1950 were yesterday. This no longer works; what is needed is an historical perspective, as this remarkable show at Mnuchin provides.


The gallery’s impressive show covers five decades of work--from the late 1940s through the early 1980s. De Kooning’s women are well represented in the exhibition; they are sexy, aggressive in their allure, and demonic: their erotic instinct seems to have nearly supernatural wellsprings, unusually forward, close to fearsome. At the same time, there is a cartoonish implausibility to their aura, making them less daunting than they seem. In a way, de Kooning is succumbing to the American perspective on women, objectifying them out of need and fear. It does small good to comment on any artist’s motivations--speculation is always rife with misinterpretation. But it is pretty clear from this show that de Kooning did have complicated relations with women, even if he turns those relations to comic advantage. In a similar manner, his abstractions are lush to the point of being overripe. Indeed, they are close to infantile in the artist’s thick smearing, rejection of edging through overlaps, and indifference to structure. Such work is performance art of a sort; it engages us by virtue of recorded activity. But rarely do we find such an uninhibited point of view, whose sensuousness has to do both with de Kooning’s experience of Eros and with his command of paint as a material medium. Expressionism is hardly an intellectual activity, relying as it does on the emotional life of the artist. But sometimes the feelings portrayed are so acute as to have a conceptual component. This may well be true with de Kooning, whose feelings are strong enough to stand as ideas.


Untitled (Three Figures) (1947), the earliest work in the show, presents a Picassoesque tableau of three women, two yellow figures, one on the left and one in the center, and one in gray, outlined in black, on the right. It is a complicated piece of work, with a green background on the upper left that fades a bit before the jumble of forms surrounding the women, chief among them a complex array of green, blue, and white shapes unceremoniously posed on the bottom right. A bit too busy to be fully successful, the untitled painting nonetheless reminds us of de Kooning’s great gifts. (It is as if he had inserted too many ideas into the picture plane to make it fully cohere.) Woman (1952) is a face-on portrait of a female, whose eyes are large to the point of caricature and whose immense, pointed breasts cover her torso and even reach slightly across her arms. The woman’s body and left arm are a light yellow; the right arm is white, while the lowest part of the legs is flesh-colored. Unlike many of the women painted by de Kooning, this example seems more innocent, free of sexual combativeness. It is impossible to capture the complexity of aspect de Kooning’s women display. They are exemplars of myth coming out of an eroticized imagination. At the same time, too, they have their realist aspect. The combination of a personal mythology and a more than disheveled pictorial organization result in female figures that linger in the viewer’s mind long after they have been seen.


We are distant enough from the abstract-expressionist movement to begin to think accurately about its historical stature. Most historians feel that it is a major achievement, albeit one clouded by our need to aggrandize the romanticism rampant at the time. Individual artists such as Louise Fishman and Amy Sillman maintain the high standards of their forebears, but the movement is over. De Kooning had the luck to be a foreigner in an America that, at the time, seemed golden. And abstract expressionism was the best way to communicate the exuberance of a late, as-yet-untarnished capitalism, as well as the beginnings of a superb popular musical culture, jazz especially. Because de Kooning came from another country, he could participate in America’s best aspects without owning some of the darker things, such as our penchant for toppling governments we don’t like, which was not known prominently at the time. The swing era enabled de Kooning to improvise in his own fashion, but it is also true he brought with him a good education and a sense of the past from Europe. The combination resulted in a body of works whose achievement is without precedent, not least because of the complexity of his influences.


Not all the paintings are erotic studies or sensuous abstract freedoms; some of them occur somewhere in between. In Woman (1953), there is a balance between the figure, whose lidless eye and rictus are more than slightly disturbing, and the fluid attentions of the paint, which slips and slides across the canvas. The colors are bright--yellow for the body and red for the legs. The figure’s breasts are dark blue, while the arms are red and flesh-colored. Framing the women is an inspired mess of colors--green, tan, gray, white. For this writer at least, the impression is one of unadulterated aggression; the smile reminds de Kooning’s viewers of a vagina dentata. One way of keeping figuration alive is to invest it with anger, and even if de Kooning’s figures are comic in their hostility, the hostility exists, nonetheless. The painting titled Two Women (1964) looks at first like an abstract painting dominated by pinkish tones. On a closer glance, the two heads become apparent, and it is possible to separate one body from the next. Still, this painting seems to use the figure only secondarily, being more taken with the application of paint. De Kooning’s psychological outlook, even with the women that so regularly frequent his paintings, takes a back seat to his great love for paint as a highly physical medium. But it needs to be said that the freedom he makes use of derives from a discipline and also a training Americans usually lack. This means that even when he is seemingly indulging his penchant for paint qua paint, there is a control and an authority behind the expansiveness and apparent lack of restraint.


America has been a fertile home to immigrants who have come here and remade their lives to find our culture’s freedom a great opportunity for art. De Kooning and Gorky are examples in art, while Milosz and Brodsky are instances in writing (both poets won the Nobel Prize). But all four men were disciplined in ways Americans find hard to understand, given as we are to the romance of expressionism. Untitled XVI (1978) is unabashedly loose in its handling of paint--with its amorphous smears of pinks and whites and reds and yellow, the painting can only be regarded as a tableau of unfettered emotion, taken with a freedom so absolute as to destroy any sense of order. Maybe a work like this works as an inspired exception to my assertion that the underpinnings of de Kooning’s work are about structure. But, also, maybe not--maybe this kind of freedom, coalescing into an example of high pictorial intelligence, comes about because de Kooning was trained so well. Untitled #4 (1956-58) offers a plurality of shapes against a white background, intimating the very white paintings, streaked with color, the artist did toward the end of his life. This work puts forth rough-edged rectangles that are orange, tan, white tinged with mauve; it too seems to disregard structure, although the painting also implies conscious decision-making in de Kooning’s judicious choice of the shapes and their placement. Good art--outstanding art like de Kooning’s--plays with order and freedom in ways that promulgate a new understanding of both. This happens regularly in de Kooning’s oeuvre.


To finish with some anomalous work: there are several of de Kooning’s famous clam diggers in the show. More or less life-size, made of bronze, the sculptures are the three-dimensional equivalent of the artist’s painterly disorder, although they lack color. Cross-Legged Figure (1972) occurs as a hunched body with a caricature of a face and crossed legs. His long arms and huge hands extend beyond the body into open space. Absurd in its posture and energies, the figure deliberately approaches the comic and is eccentric in ways the paintings are not. These figures are a bit of an acquired taste, being cartoonish parodies of actual people. Their surface texture is extreme--they are made of gouges and thin juts of bronze. The works occupy a space that is awkward, actually unattractive, unlike the lyric beauty of the paintings.


The two very late paintings in this show, done by de Kooning in the early 1980s when he had dementia, are characterized by lots of white background embellished by curving strips of color, usually primary in hue. There have been arguments about the achievement of this final work, which manages to have the simplicity of something approaching classicism, even if it often feels partially fulfilled. The painting Untitled II (1983) consists of random organic forms, often orange and yellow, whose outer surface is lined in blue. The result? A free-floating cosmic soup of forms whose poetic simplicity and color, underscored by the white ground, finalizes de Kooning’s long, long acquaintance with paint as a material nearly sufficient unto itself. It is true that the surface of these paintings is flat, without impasto, but that accentuates the artist’s reductive choosing. The work indicates the painter’s mastery even as he was being enveloped by a neurological disease.


A show like this affords us the chance to see de Kooning both work out and repeat insights about Eros and painting (and, slightly, sculpture). He is an artist of extraordinary natural gifts, which the open ambience of American culture of the time enabled him to develop into a body of work that will stay with us in history. It might be argued de Kooning’s particular brand of innovation moved in the direction of blatant emotion, but then emotion has always been key in painting of achievement. He is a major artist, but someone whose work must now be seen as embracing a superabundance that worked for him but maybe not so well for his followers. We are still fascinated with expressionism as a goal in its own right, without worrying about its closeness to emotional excess. But, as this excellent show demonstrates, de Kooning is so very good as to triumph over the loose edges of his practice and complete a vision of fullness in art. Like more than a few immigrant artists who came to New York to find themselves, de Kooning made it clear that he had left Europe to create something new. He did so at a level almost no one else from his time achieved.


Jonathan Goodman

Images courtesy of Mnuchin Gallery - Photography Tom Powel Imaging

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