Check out these
video clips of
Robert Storr at MoMA's
de Kooning show.
8.3 secs long, 417k.
30 secs long, 1,427k.
Woman, c. 1952
Willem De Kooning
late de kooning
by Michael Klein
Escaping a slight case of Manhattan cabin
fever, I have come to the new de Kooning
show, "Willem de Kooning: The Late
Paintings: The 1980s," at the Museum of
Modern Art, Jan. 26-Apr. 29, 1997,
predisposed to love it because I love
de Kooning's paintings.
De Kooning has been the preeminent
master of the New York School since
its beginning, a view underscored by
the most recent literature, such as
Carter Ratcliff's new book, The
Fate of the Gesture: Jackson Pollock
and Postwar American Art. De Kooning
was handsome, charming, a successful
emigre from his native Rotterdam and the
hero to many an intellectual. As an artist
he was passionate and devout, dogmatic,
moody, even drunk but always the master.
Recently we have seen a lot of de Koonings.
A painting survey last season at the
Metropolitan, a show of early works at
Allan Stone Gallery and the abundant
collection of de Koonings at the Hirshhorn
Museum in Washington, D.C. But this
new exhibition is an entirely different
matter, a selection of some 36 works from
1981 to `87--though the elegant catalogue
includes reproductions from 1988--many
of which are brilliant, a few overtly
As a show, however, the curating tends
to be mean and more sparse than spare.
Missing are drawings, studies and
anything other than the prerequisite
70 x 80 in. canvas, or a horizontal version
of that proportion. The overall gallery
atmosphere is somewhat too even, too
dry--nothing outweighs or challenges
anything else, save for an odd shaped
triptych, which is only odd, but not
particularly interesting to look at.
And this smacks of an `80s phenomenon
in which there is less curating going on
and more pitching of the "big" name. The
viewing public would have been better
served too with an additional gallery of
selected works from the museum's own
holdings of de Kooning to set this show
But perhaps this may be the only way
to present these works, because this
may be all there is. Or perhaps this is a
sign of the artist's touch being absent
from the show's planning. Furthermore,
a case is made, rather heavily in the
catalogue, for attributing the artist's
deterioration to Alzheimer's disease. But
the evidence presented is inconclusive
and mostly speculative. We don't know
how or why this disease takes away from
de Kooning's accomplishments--or adds
Still, the late paintings will challenge
the seasoned viewer. Since the last full-
scale de Kooning retrospective at the
Whitney Museum in 1983, things have
changed enormously, and the recent
de Kooning of the 1970s is nothing like
the late de Kooning of today. Gone are the
dense, tactile markings of heavy paint,
surfaces pulsing with an internal rhythm,
colors that shine, and paint delivered as if
it will remain perpetually wet on the canvas.
Instead, the rough surface has become
unusually serene, as if the subject matter
is no longer a soul-searching enterprise,
but a glimpse of a glorious rapture. No,
this is not a religious conversion, but is
a conversion of thought and feeling and
obviously of temperament.
Similarly, the usual pigment trio of red,
yellow and blue that could have a rough
edge to them gives way to more exotic
colors--orange, brown and beige and
purple set against and within dreamy
mounds of white. The results are graceful,
magic, linear motion that makes you feel
as if there is an endless flow of color and
form from picture to picture. It is very
easy to get lost in them and to just ponder
Of these new late paintings someone cruelly
asked, "So where is that Abstract
Expressionism?" Well, it's slowed down.
It's metaphorical and physically a new
arena in which de Kooning operates.
Movement and paint take a longer time to
come together. The characteristic immediacy
is replaced by an uncharacteristic
leisureliness. De Kooning has had time on
his side for years and this wonderful
luxury is something that abounds in this
work. Perhaps, these paintings are a
celebration of time, of growing old, of
diminished capacities ironically overcome
by a singular vision that can produce both
wonderful and silly things.
Surprisingly, too, references to nature
are everywhere: scant images that could be
leaves, pods, seeds and the physical terrain
of dunes, puddles and coastline appear and
reappear. All through his career nature was
never abandoned in favor of abstraction but
was the subject from which abstraction evolved.
So here in these late paintings inspiration is
derived from a place--Long Island's South
Fork (Untitled XXII, 1982) and memories of
Holland (Garden in Delft, 1987). De Kooning
weaves a mixture of light and air and water
that moves throughout, no different
from the dramatic color and light of
Montauk Highway, painted in 1958, some
30 years earlier, but in these `80s paintings
there is a greater attention paid to the
details of nature.
Of these last works I am convinced that
through many of these paintings de
Kooning looks back not only to his own
repertoire, but to other artists as well.
There is a real orchestration that makes
you think of Picasso's Surrealist bathers
on the beach, Franz Marc's mythical forests
or Kandinsky's magical expressionism and
even his own notable contemporaries:
Gorky, Krasner, Guston.
All in all, the occasion here is happy/sad:
a great artist's last works and a farewell
of sorts to a generation of painters who
made a big history and a bigger legacy
for our time. I can't help but wonder what
de Kooning would think?
As you leave the galleries there are two
views of de Kooning in his studio. The
first is a photograph of the artist in
profile walking past a recently finished
painting, sitting out of focus in the
background. His head is bent down and he
seems to be concentrating on the brush in
his hand, and very much unaware of the
camera in the studio. The second image
is a view from above looking down and at
a younger de Kooning (then in his late `70s)
surrounded by canvases, paints, easels, etc.
He is very much alive, standing before the
camera, proud of his talents, and taking his
bows as he presents his works.
It's a kind and simple tribute to the man
MICHAEL KLEIN is a private art dealer