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Willem de Kooning

by Charlie Finch
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Until the newest iteration of Bravo's "Work of Art" reality show returns in October (no need to attend any actual gallery exhibitions during that month), the lovably conformist world of art shall be beamed down on the life's work of someone named Willem de Kooning, assembled in a retrospective on Sept. 18, 2011, at the Museum of Modern Art. I am writing about him now so I don't have to attend the show.

And indeed it is doubtful that the shade of de Kooning would attend this particular exhibition, because Bill was always the emperor of small things and small needs, with which we can perhaps empathize: the need to be loved, to be understood and to satisfy, above all, one's peculiar needs in the studio and on the beach and downtown. It is instructive that the love affair with the grotesque artist Frans Hals, whose summertime Metropolitan Museum show received an undulating rave from Roberta Smith in the New York Times, should so closely anticipate the de Kooning retro, because the two Dutchmen are essentially joined at the hip in the great body of bad work which they both committed, taming unruly subject matter for the approval of the same bourgeois taste which infiltrates their subjects.

Visually, there is little distance between Hals' burghers and de Kooning's women, redundantly advertising lusty yet transitory repellence. That the artists might have "hated" their subjects is irrelevant; a subject is a subject and there's an end on it, at least until Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud resumed similar alienated themes.

No, what has always made poor me adore de Kooning are his "cityscapes" of the late 1950s into the 1960s, when his sales profile was at a low ebb under the Pop tsunami and Bill was thrown back on the reductivism of a Manhattan which seduced him as a young man. These ultramarine blue sky views, with their rich greens and reds, accented by a spot o' yellow, emerged as the greatest abstract paintings ever made.

They force you to find similar visual hymns in the best work of James Brooks, Esteban Vincente and Sam Francis, all of whom were cognizant of Bill at the height of his studio powers. Fortunately, MoMA curator emeritus John Elderfield has rewarded us with a room of de Kooning's late 1950s genius, a body of work analogous to Frank Stella's black paintings or Jackson Pollock's black enamel paintings as cynosures of abstracto inspiration.

But the genius disappeared again, when Bill moved to the East End and drowned in waves of yellow ochre. When you go to "de Kooning," it is not squeegeed "Picassos" or the labored Excavation or the broken pieces of misogyny, or Montauk laziness, or senile doodles that you wanna see, but the late 1950s works such as Gotham News or Merritt Parkway, the equal of any painting ever made.

“De Kooning: A Retrospective,” Sept. 18-Jan. 9, 2011, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019s

CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).