de Kooning: A Retrospective

Museum of Modern Art, New York

September 18, 2011 to January 9, 2012

Detail  of "Pirate (Untitled II)"

Detail of "Pirate (Untitled II)," by Willem de Kooning, oil on canvas, 7 feet 4 inches by 6 feet 4 3/4 inches, 1981, The Museum of Modern Art,  New York, Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection Fund

By Carter B. Horsley

Willem de Kooning has always been a member  of the pantheon of famous post-World War II American painters but almost begrudgingly because of his famous misogynistic depictions of women in comparison with the simplistic geometric abstractions of Mark Rothko (see The City Review article) and the sprawling drips of Jackson Pollock (see The City Review article). 

De Kooning actually is a much deeper and interesting painter than either Rothko or Pollock because he was much more painterly and daring in his willingness to experiment and revisit and revise and this huge exhibition demonstrates that his late work, initially  derided, is a quite thrilling exultation of grace and chance.

De Kooning was first drawn to modernist art when he came to New York City in 1926, "initially to the flatly patterned, quasi-abstract compositions of Henri Matisse and Giorgio de Chirico, and then,in the mid-1930s, to the Cubist-derived modernism of his early mentors Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, and John Graham," the catalogue noted.

In his catalogue essay, John Elderfield, chief curator emeritus at the Modern, provided the following commentary about the artist's early career:

"De Kooning, who, uniquely among the major Abstract Expressionists, was little affected by Surrealism, had learned precisely this in 1946 from Arshile Gorky, who 'said that at the last second he misplaced the line' from where he had planned to set it on the surface.  De Koonig would have undertood what his friend Milton Resnick said of Gorky" 'He's no longer faithful to what his mind is telling him.  That's a very important step  The next step is you make comparisons to what other things are doing " a brushtroke, a smudge, what paint is doing."...It is the decisive impulse of a sudden, last-second release from a strictly learned and structured system into the instinctual unknown; but not a release from human agency itself.  De Kooning's ability to perform quick gearshifts between the rational and the transrational should not be confused with what has been called 'de-skilling.'  When moving into a state of negative capability he did not surrender skill  along with will, but relied on it in order to trust what could be gained by being in uncertainty  - and the ability to shift gears required its own kind of skill which de Kooning made into a habit."


"Untitled," by Willem de Kooning, oil on board, 9 by 13 3/4 inches, 1937, private collection

His early work, like that of many his contemporaries, was heavily influenced by the Surrealists.  The small untitled 1937 oil on board, shown above, is a typical such work that demonstrates an unusual palette and an interesting interplay of forms.

"Pink Landscape"

"Pink Landscape," by Willem de Kooning,  oil on composition board, 25 by 37 1/8 inches, circa 1942, private collection,  courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

By 1942, de Kooning is still in a Surrealist world with a beautiful almost pastel-like palette.  His 1942 "Pink Landscape," shown above, demonstrates his intriguing subtlety of placement.  Symmetry is not his goal but balance is as is propinquity and  suggestiveness.  The picture's elements seem in movement and yet are contained and not explosive.

"Seated Figure (Classic Male)"

"Seated Figure (Classic Male)" by Willem de Kooning, oil and charcoal on wood panel, 54 3/8 by 36 inches, circa 1941-3, Private Collection

Pink and flesh colors absorb him and abstraction has not overtaken figurative subjects completely as can be seen in "Seated Figure (Classic Male)," a 1941-1943 work that Picasso would be proud of.  It is ghostly but very substantial and the ethereal figure facing a different direction suggests an alternate visual complexity.


"Figure," by Willem  de Kooning, oil on masonite, 19 1/2 by 16 1/8 inches, Bettina and Donald L. Bryant Jr., 1944

De Kooning's take on a Renaissance portrait of a seated woman, shown above, transfers the rich, detailed fabric into soft compartmentalized engines of luscious color.  Color is very important to de Kooning, often having a life of its own apart from the composition's intent.


"Untitled," by Willem de Kooning, oil on paper, 23 by 29 inches circa 1945, private collection U.S.A.

In the 1945 untitled work shown above, de Kooning narrows his palette and begins to be fascinated by "outlines."  The green rectangle in the center and the brief "hint" of red animate the otherwise earthiness of this composition whose few curves "populate" it.

"Pink Angels"

"Pink Angels," by Willem de Kooning, oil and charcoal on canvas, 52 by 40 inches,  circa 1945, Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation, Los Angeles

All of these aesthetic considerations come wonderfully together in "Pink Angeles," shown above.  This work, circa 1945, shows Surrealist aesthetics in the totemic iconography of Tanguy and  Matta but de Kooning's pentimenti gives it greater dimension and "excitement."

"Judgment Day"

"Judgment Day," by Willem de Kooning, oil and charcoal on paper 22 1/8 by  28 1/2 inches, 1946, Metropolitan Museum of Art from the collection of Thomas  B. Hess, gift of the heirs of Thomas B. Hess

In the 1946 "Judgment Day," shown above, de Kooning energizes the composition with more component and colors with an electrifying saturation.

"Untitled (Two Women)"

"Untitled (Two Women)," by Willem de Kooning, oil on paper, 20 by 16 inches, 1947, Collection Samuel and Ronnie Heyman

By 1947, de Kooning liberates his very fine composition in "Untitled (Two Women)" from a drab palette dominated by pale browns and pinks to bright whites, strong yellows and blues and oranges and turquoises and his "outlines" now take on recognizable breasts and female forms.

"Pink Lady"

"Pink Lady," by Willem de Kooning, oil and charcoal on paper on fiberboard, 18 1/2 inches square, circa 1948, Collection Ambassador and Mrs. Donald Blinken, New York

In "Pink Lady," de Kooning "deconstructs" much of the "clarity" of "Untitled (Two Women)" and fades away the "yellow" to jumble the seated woman who remains recognizable but is clearly now askew in front of an almost "scientific" background that needs not be deciphered.


"Mailbox, oil, enamel, and charcoal on paper on composition board, 23 1/8 by 30 inches, Bettin and Donald L. Bryant Jr., 1948

In "Mailbox," a 1948 work, de Kooning remove most of the color, leaving an undecipherable jumble of outlined white elements with a few smudges of orange, red, yellow and pale blue and a great deal of pedimenti.


"Untitled," by Willem de Kooning, oil and enamel on paper mounted on composition board, The Art Institute of Chicago, gift from the Mary and Earle Ludgin Collection, 1948-9

In 1948, he creates a stunning series of white outlines against black backgrounds that are full of energy and are very painterly.


"Painting" by Willem de Kooning, 42 5/8 by 56 1/8 inches, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Purchase, 1948

Many of de Kooning's "black-and-white" abstractions were included in his first solo exhibition, which was held at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York in 1948.  

"Black Friday"

"Black Friday," by Willem de Kooning, oil and enamel on pressed wood panel, 49 3/16 by 39 inches, Princeton University Art Museum, gift of H. Gates Lloyd, class of 1923, and Mrs. Lloyd in honor of the Class of 1923, 1948

The catalogue notes that "it was on the basis of de Kooning's black-and-white paintings of 1947-49, the first body of black-and-white abstractions by a New York School painter, that the artist's reputation an enormous influence as an Abstract Expressionist were firmly established.


"Woman," by Willem de Kooning, oil, enamel and charcoal  on canvas, 60 by 47 7/8 inches, 1949, private collection

"Woman," a large 1949 oil by de Kooning is a very bold and fine precursor to the artist's famous series on women that he would create in the next decade.

"Gansevoort Street"

"Gansevoort Street," by Willem de Kooning, Oil on cardboard, 30 by 40 inches, circa 1949, Collection Harry W.  and Mary Margaret Anderson

The late 1940s and early 1950s witness de Kooning at a fever pitch of brilliant creativity as demonstrated by his startling red abstraction, "Gansevoort Street" of 1949. amd his very large "Excavation" of 1950.


"Excavation," by Willem de Kooning, oil and enamel on canvas, 81 by 100 inches, The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Frank G. Logan Purchase Prize Fund; restricted gifts of Edgar J. Kaufman Jr., and Mr. and Mrs. Noah Goldowsky Jr., 1950

The catalogue described "Excavation" as "the climatic work of this era," adding that "he labored over it for many months" and "it soon became a widely celebrated painting...and for the momentt, the aggressive Woman paintings received far less attention from critics and fellow artists."

Five "Woman" pictures

Five "Woman" pictures circa 1950-1953, by Willem de Kooning

In his introduction to the catalogue, John Elderfield provides the following commentary about de Kooning and his third "Woman" series of six paintings, five of which are shown in one gallery, above:

"de Kooning said, "Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure.  I always seem to be wrapped in the melodrama of vulgarity.  De Kooning did posssess that indispensable skill for a great artist in the public eye, an indifference to disappointing people' and this statement was a warning shot to his public about what to expect....the past that he chose (as no other Abstract Epressionist could concievably have done) was 'the vulgarity and fleshy part' developed in sixteenth-century Venice by Titian, the inventor of paint made flesh; transmitted to Rubens and Rembrandt, de Kooning's Northern ancestors' and represented it the modern version by the work of Chaim Soutine, the subjet of an exhbitionat The Museum of Modern Art in 1950....Hess's 'De Kooning Paints A Picture,' published in the March 1953 issue of Art News, made a sensation of Woman I even before it  was exhibited, but also unwittingly provided language to condemn what the essay praised.  Describing the artist's preliminary process of shaping the painting from a sequence of 'cut apart, reversed, exchanged and otherwise manipulated' figure drawings, Hess compared him to the mythical robber Procrustes, who 'cut or stretched travelers to fit his bed"....the conventional story that the reception of the paintings' first exhibition, at the Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, in 1953,  was utterly negative is myth....while neither de Kooning's supposed relapse into the figure nor his new looseness of facture seemed to bother too many people, it was when the two topica awere brought together that they unleashed the charge of misogynous assault."

"Black and White Rome"

"Black and White Rome," by Willem de Kooning, black enamel and collage on paper, 39 1/4 by 55 3/4 inches, The Menil Foundation, Houston, 1959

"Black and White Rome" is a work that could easily be mistaken for a great Franz Kline.  In his catalogue essay, John Elderfield provides the following pertinent commentary:

"Through the second half of the 1950s and into the early 60s, the sequential intensification of de Kooning's art is as noticeable as it was a decade earlier.  But whereas, in the years before 1950, elements from one type of work inhabited other types of work being made in the same period, from 1955 to around 1963 his work developed through elements mutating as they inhabited one type of work after another.  It was over this roughly eight-year span of unfolding stylistic momentum that de Kooning's critical acclaim, financial success, influence anong younger artists, and rock-star unsteadiness in his personal life were all firmly established.  The work made then both created and reflected his status, being ruthlessly intrepid, declaratively public, and willfully canonical.  His biographers speak confidently of Easter Monday as his 'first truly mainstream painting' with de Koooning 'no longer a tormented explorer...but an artist in control of his time, place, and style.'  For almost a decade thereafter, he seemed incapable of not remaining in control, at least in his art, and thereby produced some of his most perfected works.  Over the years, they moved inexorably toward a greater simplication at once getting close to the body's internal contours and taking an ever more distant view onto simple divisions of landscape.  By the end the 1950s, their vocabulary of picture-making was rudimentary and elemental, composed of overlapping front flats that surrendered the old buldging, twisting planes for the sake of grahic clarity  It was now fully in character for the intrepeid artist that in 1959 as his old friend Franze Kline began consistently to use color, de Kooning grabbed hold of Kline's former, all-black-and-white format to enhance that graphic clarity in his own Rome pantings.  The turn to black and white, like that little more than a decade earlier, was a decisive moment of pause.  In this case it gave de Kooning pause about the wisdom of his pursuit of dramatic contrasts.  And perhaps the brightness of Rome's light and the darkness of its urban shadows, which may well have turned him to black and white, also cautioned him that the landspape in the vicinity of New York City which had been infuential on his recent paintings, did not display such contrasts."


Four sculptures

"A visit to Japan in 1970," the catalogue noted, "exposed him to calligraphy and Sumi brush painting and may hav led to his making twenty black-and-white lithographs, some very large - loosely composed abstract an quasi-figurative compositions that court accidents in the printing process for a wide variety of painterly effects.  In 1972-74, he returned to sculpture, now working in wetter, more slippery clay and making male and female figures, some almost life size, seemingly composed less of volumes than of thickened surfaces of skin and sinew....In 1978, de Kooning decided he had become so proficient at making his 'landscapes of the body' that once again he had to make a change.  He finally found a new direction in 1980, producing some very grand works compose of energetic pattrns of broad ribbons of painting.  These opening the way to what would become the grand finale of his artistic career."

"Untitled V"

"Untitled V" by Willem de Kooning, oil on canvas, 70 by 80 inches, 1980, Kravis Collection

"Untitled VIII"

"Untitled VIII" by Willem de Kooning, oil on canvas, 54 by 60 inches, 1980, collection Peter Marino

"Pirate (Untitled II)"

"Pirate (Untitled II)," by Willem de Kooning, oil on canvas, 7 feet 4 inches by 6 feet 4 3/4 inches, 1981, The Museum of Modern Art,  New York, Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection Fund

"In 1981," the catalogue noted, "de Kooning set aside the heavy painterliness of his preceding canvases to work on smooth surfaces glazed with bright transparent colors, across which fragments of ribbons and filaments of drawing dart and swerve, as in Pirate (Untitled II) and Untitled  III.  The following year saw the creatin of dense paintings oftn with wide, solid shapes and tentacular bands that typically required multiple states in their making.  And then, in 1983, a more radical change occurred: the paintings became sparer, eventually pared down to large areas of varied whites across which run narrower bans and thin, mobile lines that shape  complex spaces and an elusive figuration."  

"Untitled II"

"Untitled II" by Willem de Kooning, oil on canvas, 70 by 80 inches, 1983, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Fractional gift of Mimi and Peter Haas, left; "Untitled VI" by Willem de Kooning, oil on canvas, 77 by 88 inches, 1983, Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection

No titles

"No Title" by Willem de Kooning, oil on canvas, 77 by 88 inches, 1984, private collection, left; "No Title" by Willem de Kooning, oil on canvas, 77 by 88 inches, 1985, private collection, right

"Some of them have a painterly substructure and others incorporate bright, shaped areas, but as a whole they pointed the way to the even more stripped-down,  crisply graphic compositions of 1984-85." the catalogue continued.

"Untitled XII"

"Untitled XII" by Willem de Kooning, oil on canvas, 70 by 80 inches, 1982, Collection Samuel and Ronnie Heyman

"Untitled V"

"Untitled V" by Willem de Kooning, oil on canvas, 88 by 77 inches,  1983, Mr. and Mrs. David Pincus

"Rider (Untitled VII)"

"Rider (Untitled VII)," by Willem de Kooning, oil on canvas, 70 inches by 6 feet 8 inches, 1985, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Purchase and gift of Milly and Arnold Glimcher

"The cumulative picture of de Kooning's achievement differs a great deal from conventional notions of 'action painting' and 'abstract expressionism.' It makes clear the de Kooning never followed any single, narrowly defined path; he  repudiated the modernist view of art developing toward an increasingly refined all-over abstraction and found continuity in continual change.  'Art should not have to be certain way,' he insisted, and over the course of his career he explored may apparently contradictory ways: Figuration and abstraction did not have to be opposites but ould siply be ifferent options, to be explored simulatieouly or conseecutively or merged in the process of a single work," accordign to Mr. Elderfield.  

"I never was interested in how to make a good painting...but to see how far one could go," de Kooning once said.  "Being anti-traditional is just as corny as being traditional," he said on another occasion."

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