Willem de Kooning
Last Thursday night, Pace Gallery on East 57th Street kicked off what should be the year of de Kooning, considering the retrospective coming up at the Museum of Modern Art this fall, and celebrated Pace's new representation of the de Kooning estate as well, with the show "Willem de Kooning, The Figure: Movement and Gesture," which gallery staff described to me as "rarely seen works from private collections, none of which are for sale."
This does not mean, of course, that new auction records, perhaps closing in on the magic $100 million figure, are not anticipated for the future, and Pace's exhibition is a macho advertisement for such valuations. Many of the works are on paper are so strongly re-presented that artist Audrey Flack wondered to me, "what backing was used to make them look as if they were on canvas?" This show is the very playful side of de Kooning, one he first proffered to Tom Hess in the latter's seminal 1953 ARTnews article "De Kooning Paints a Picture," in which the artist described his attitude to the figure as "the feeling of familiarity you have when you look at someone's big toe, when close to it."
Indeed, feet are front-and-center in the work on view at Pace, in such pieces as a 1971 oil and charcoal on paper, without title (gallery checklist #3), where a pair of feet are delightfully splayed, or another "no title" (1970-77) (checklist #9), where reds and pinks erupt from a pair of what can only be white boots.
As that latter 1970-77 date attests, de Kooning painted and scraped away countless images on one surface over the years, before arriving somewhere unfinished, with the practiced method of a window washer with his squeegee. This often had the effect of leaving just the feet, where window washer Bill might have deliberately missed a spot. The catalogue for the exhibition and some wonderful large photos of Bill in his studio at Pace show the lifelong method that de Kooning outlined to Tom Hess in 1953: not only removing countless walls of paint to move on, but placing drawings as maquettes on the surface of a work-in-progress and constantly riffing off of those.
Weirdly, this besotted process leaves de Kooning closer to Cézanne in form and, especially, with the predominance of lush greens and pinks on view at Pace, color. Montauk V (1969, #7 on the checklist) and an untitled piece on vellum from 1970-74 (#12 on the checklist) are so close to Cézanne's series of "Bathers" paintings that you can feel the ocean breeze off the East End and see the folks bathing in the Atlantic when you gaze upon them.
Overall, the Pace show comprises eight major de Kooning paintings (even if some are on paper), some impressive sculptures that could have been done by Duchamp's lover, the sculptor Maria Martins (similar form and content), and some quirky stuff, additionally. Foremost of the latter are two drawings which amazed Audrey Flack with their luminosity, Untitled (ca. 1975, #13 on the checklist) and an untitled piece from 1970-1980 (#14 on the checklist). These two complimentary works depict what seems to be a monk or seer in a standing pose of fiery anger. They are different from most other de Koonings not only because of the unusual subject matter, but due to the silver reflective qualities of the paper, which dumbfounded Ms. Flack.
Also intriguing are three quick drawings on foolscap paper from 1965-68 (#25, 26, 27 on the checklist), which appear to be Broadway show stars like Tallulah Bankhead or Carol Channing, and illustrate the fatal facility with which de Kooning approached any drawing assignment. In the regular rhythm of his practice, breaking down the surface square and filling it over and over again with sure, transparent strokes, it was as if he was cleaning windows.
"Willem de Kooning: The Figure: Movement and Gesture," Apr. 29-July 29, 2011, at the Pace Gallery, 32 East 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10022.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).