Rider (Untitled VII), 1985.

 

There are only a couple of weeks left to see one of this year’s most impressive shows, de Kooning: A Retrospective, which closes January 9. Curated by John Elderfield, MoMA’s chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture, this massive show fills the museum’s entire sixth floor with nearly 200 paintings, drawings, sculptures, and prints from Willem de Kooning’s prolific and varied career. One of the most important artists of the 20th century, de Kooning is finally being celebrated for his exuberantly inventive, complex and often controversial lifetime of work. This long overdue retrospective is a first-time-ever opportunity to experience the full range of de Kooning’s seventy years of creative output. The show is not traveling to other museums – it is being shown exclusively at MoMA. So get out there and see it, before it’s too late!

De Kooning, who died in 1997, is most often remembered as a pioneer of abstract expressionism. But the chronologically installed retrospective clearly shows that he made art that included both figurative and abstract elements, often in the same work, throughout most of his life. Most of de Kooning’s work is based on a figurative idea—a person, object or place—that he executed in varying degrees of abstraction. Several years after his breakthrough show of black-and-white abstract paintings at Charles Egan Gallery in 1948, de Kooning was accused of abandoning abstraction when he returned to painting the female figure. But promoting abstract expressionism was never de Kooning’s main agenda. De Kooning was engaged with the process of constructing a work of art. He experimented in a deliberate and labor-intensive way that involved putting images together and then pulling them apart. De Kooning’s focus was on what he could create by repeatedly building up his work and then breaking it down in order to amplify the experience of the work.
 

John Elderfield’s challenge in curating de Kooning: A Retrospective was to figure out how to select and present the work of such an extraordinarily productive and intensely multifaceted artist. With so many interesting experiments and successful works to choose from, he could not present them all. The thoughtfully curated show features de Kooning’s most well-know paintings, including Pink Angels (1945), at right, and
 

Excavation (1950)

 

Women (1) 1950, part of a 1950-1952 series.

 

Clam Digger (1972).

It also presents a well-rounded and illustrative selection of paintings from all of de Kooning’s most important series, as well as several drawings, lithographs and bronze sculptures. There is even a rarely seen theatrical backdrop painted for a surrealist performance by Martha Graham dancer and choreographer, Marie Marchowsky.

 

Cat's Meow (1987).

Aware of the scope and variety of de Kooning’s production, I was thrilled to find a whole room dedicated to his controversial late paintings, made while the artist was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. These stripped-down paintings are yet another of de Kooning’s unprecedented inventions. Using Mondrian’s three primary colors in a clear reference to his fellow Dutch artist, de Kooning painted sinuous ribbons, delicate tendrils, patches of bright color and transparent washes on white grounds that create negative spaces and a feeling of movement. The results range from canvases that are very sparse to others that are crisp and graphic. These works are both highly inventive and sublime, and are a testimony to de Kooning’s great intuitive gifts. The conditions under which these paintings were made has been carefully researched, and the paintings are presented wholeheartedly, without reference to earlier, apparently unfounded accusations that they were painted by studio assistants, unfinished or invalid for some other reason.

With de Kooning: A Retrospective, John Elderfield and MoMA have created the best kind of institutional art history. Hopefully, this intelligent show will ensure that de Kooning’s brilliant late paintings are included in his complex and wonderful legacy.

 

The Museum of Modern Art


11 West 53 Street

Closed Tuesdays

Open until 8:30 p.m. the first Thursday of every month

Holiday Hours
December 24: 10:30 a.m.–3:00 p.m.; December 25: Closed; December 26–December 29: 9:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m.; December 30: 9:30 a.m.–8:00 p.m.; December 31–January 2: 9:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m.

All images courtesy the Museum of Modern Art, New York.