Willem de Kooning couldn’t have been more clear about what he thought of retrospectives, despite his reluctant agreement to a mid-career survey in the late 1960s: “They treat the artist like a sausage, tie him up at both ends, and stamp on the center ‘Museum of Modern Art,’ as if you’re dead and they own you.” De Kooning’s indictment of MoMA is now even more ironic, if not poignant, with the opening of de Kooning: A Retrospective, John Elderfield’s exhibition of nearly 200 works that is the first to survey the master artist’s entire career. Large but not exhausting, triumphant yet still intimate and even disarmingly affectionate, the exhibition is an unparalleled example of what can happen when the right material is paired with the right curator at the right time at—despite prior evidence to the contrary—the right institution. And, true to form, it works as well as it does because de Kooning comes off as even more resistant to being owned, ever.
From the choices and juxtapositions of works, to the installation and flow of the galleries, to the heavyweight and definitive catalogue, everything about this show comes together to clear the way—from here on out—for de Kooning at MoMA, with or without the likes of Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still (whose paintings were much more useful than de Kooning’s for extending the museum’s presentation of modernist purification—a narrative that, in the end, told only part of the story). In the beginning of his catalogue essay, Elderfield tackles the situation head on: “There is truth in the frequent observation that de Kooning’s canvases, especially his Woman paintings, do not hang well on gallery walls with works by such Abstract Expressionists. (This has long posed problems at the Museum of Modern Art.)” Much more importantly, however, this exhibition makes a convincing argument for de Kooning’s overarching relevance that eclipses even the current confines of an arguably transformed MoMA—or, for that matter, modern art itself—placing him more firmly in the company of Matisse (whom he admired for his “no -ism” painting) and Duchamp (whom he called a “one-man movement”), without denying the force of Picasso (not to mention Rubens, Rembrandt, or Ingres). What was a problem is now a solution: de Kooning stuck to his always-simmering “soup” of art history and his sustaining “cuisine” of painting not only to resist the nasty business of sausage making, but also to prove once again that the long view still matters even—or especially—now that he’s gone (and especially in painting), providing continuity with his contradictions and vice versa.
The wisdom of this long view is evident in the juxtaposition of de Kooning’s two earliest works, both made in Rotterdam before his arrival in New York in 1926. A small oil on cardboard, “Still Life” (1916-17), painted when de Kooning was only 12 or 13 with materials given to him by the owners of the design firm where he was an apprentice, includes a basic attempt at modern painting with its flat depiction of decorative, colorful wallpaper. In comparison, a similarly sized drawing, “Still Life (Bowl, Pitcher, and Jug)” (c. 1921), made while de Kooning was a student in the evening program at Rotterdam’s Academie (where, by the way, no oil painting instruction was offered), is not only confirmation of de Kooning’s abilities to fulfill the rigorous requirements of academic drawing (not to mention the stamina to work on something for what was likely a year), but also a powerful reminder that his respect for tradition would never waver.
Respect, in fact, is the thing that pulls together de Kooning’s early work, as the exhibition’s first room makes clear. Under the forceful yet diverse influence of Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, and John Graham, de Kooning spent the better part of two decades slowly coming into his own. During the 18 months he worked in the Federal Art Project of the WPA, he focused on abstraction without abandoning figuration, as in, for example, an amusing study like “Father, Mother, Sister, Brother” (c. 1937). The figure, of course, was supposedly the problem, even for de Kooning himself, but this room suggests that his struggles with it have been significantly exaggerated to serve the short story of Modernism. Despite his well-documented anxieties about his inability to “finish” the figure by leaving off body parts (especially hands), or revising constantly, the paintings in this section come together far more than they fall apart, in terms of both form and content. Identifying angst in a painting like “Seated Figure (Classic Male)” (c. 1941-43), and reading ease into a painting like “The Wave” (c. 1942-44) is tricky, and not only because they are from the same period. Rather, de Kooning is investigating the same thing in both, albeit from different (but not opposing) directions: just how far can an abstract form go figurative and vice versa all at once? Well, in his first triumph, “Pink Angels” (c. 1945), the oscillation goes rather wild, and to my eyes at least, the painting still “trembles” (to use one of de Kooning’s best words) with excitement that is more pictorial than associational, perpetually active in a manner that makes it the first painting in his career that could be moved into any of the later rooms and more than hold its own.
“Pink Angels,” of course, sets up what Elderfield has rightly labeled “The Breakthrough Years” of 1946-49, a period characterized by the medium-sized black-and-white paintings that would anchor his first solo exhibition in 1948 and initiate his reputation as a major player in the emerging New York School. Produced simultaneously with elaborate works on paper incorporating side-by-side figures, as well as forward-looking canvases like “Mailbox” (1948), which may have earned its title because it was something in which you could put many different things, the black-and-white paintings demonstrate just how important limitations are to activating freedom. Not that abstraction is by definition more free, but rather the graphic clarity of black-and-white enabled de Kooning to hold open the relationship between positive and negative space while maintaining the representational capabilities of abstraction and, again, vice versa. Without these pictures—and for me “Black Friday” (1948) looks especially fresh—de Kooning might not have taken on the upcoming mid-century moment that he captured (literally, it could be said) in “Excavation” (1950).
I’ve had the luxury these past few years of spending a great deal of time with de Kooning’s largest painting, yet upon seeing it at MoMA I was struck by how much it worked itself right back into the rhythm of his production, flanked by two smaller works, “Collage” (1950), with its thumb-tacked construction providing insights into his jump-cut working methods, and “Gansevoort Street” (c. 1949), which predicts the explosive urbanity soon to come. “Excavation” is a masterpiece not because it is capable of blowing everything else out of the room, but rather because it started the process of transforming de Kooning’s work from private to public—not so much in terms of the notoriety he was beginning to receive, but rather in its willfully unrestricted situation: figure and ground, natural and artificial, liquid and solid, and everything in between, complete with what would become an obligatory doorway-like form along its bottom, giving him a way out so that we might find a way in.
Given the further appearances of doorways, windows, and ladders in works like “Woman, Wind, and Window II” (1950), and “Abstraction” (1949-50), which also includes an image of a skull, it is at first surprising that de Kooning didn’t leave himself as obvious an exit in the series of Woman paintings that he started alongside “Excavation.” If he had known the reactions in advance, maybe he would have left in the window that is documented in Rudy Burckhardt’s photographs of the earlier stages of “Woman I” (1950-52). At MoMA, in a defiant lineup against one wall in their order of completion, five of the six paintings push back and then some against the reputation they have been given. (“Woman IV” (1952-53) is missing because the loan request was turned down by the museum that owns it, to my mind a bonehead move.) At the media preview, I appreciated Elderfield’s pushback against the over-interpreting of these paintings, a point of view he shares (as he notes in his catalogue essay) with Linda Nochlin. Here, now, and with my feminist integrity hopefully still intact, I can only say that these paintings will likely never be resolved, but I am convinced more than ever that this was the whole point in the first place, given how much still seems to be going on in the ways in which they were painted. Later, however, things get awkward for a bit (more below), but by now that should come as no surprise.
This exhibition has made me even less apologetic about my infatuation with the paintings from the period that follows, identified here as “Full Arm Sweep,” from 1956-59. I had my first weak-kneed moment on the backside of the wall of Woman paintings, surrounded by 12 canvases—each one a knockout, yes—but more importantly, each one functioning simultaneously as a painting and as a broadcast of painting itself. Back in the day, some saw this as a problem, an obnoxious, self-parodying performance. Looking again at my all-time favorite, “Gotham News” (1955), flanked by its associates, I’m convinced that the naysayers were in some ways correct: despite de Kooning’s resistance to reading too much into the happy accident of the newspaper images that were transferred to the surfaces of some of these pictures, I can’t deny reveling in the appearance of an advertisement for To Catch a Thief, starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, reversed in the top center of this painting. These so-called “urban landscapes” are themselves criminal acts, not against painting but against any attempt to limit it. Along with later “abstract parkway landscape” paintings like “Merritt Parkway” (1959), the works in this room bring to the forefront just how much de Kooning’s enterprise had already been a program of catch-and-release, casting bait to see what he can hook.
Nonetheless, I don’t think anyone today can begrudge de Kooning’s decision in 1963 to get away from the haters and the groupies (not to mention the bars) and make way for Long Island. There he could let everything go even further by participating in his own sort of witness protection program, immunized against his assumed irrelevance. Luckily for me, just as I’m coming across as far too sycophantic, I find myself rescued by my irritation with most of the work from the 1960s, and I’m left wondering about Elderfield’s decision to push most of it into what feels like the only cul-de-sac in the show. (This is probably wishful thinking.) “Clam Diggers” (1963) still makes me roll my eyes, too blow-up doll for my taste, and “The Visit” (1966-67) still makes my skin crawl. But, of course, crawling skin is the point, and I can now recognize that at this point ludicrousness needed to reign supreme (witness the absurd “La Guardia in a Paper Hat” (1972)) because it had been in the work all along. On the other hand, just when it becomes too much even for me, “Two Figures in a Landscape” (1967) rescues the moment with its cornucopia of painterly techniques and physical qualities ranging from serenely scraped removals (another willful contradiction) to the rudely spit, mucus-like additions, to the inescapable puckering. And, ultimately, the sculptures bring it all home to the waste-filled body about which all we can do is laugh.
I can only imagine what de Kooning’s 1969 MoMA retrospective must have looked like. It’s clear from Thomas B. Hess’s catalogue introduction that de Kooning was resistant to the entire idea, and I wonder if it would have happened at all if it had not been initiated by Frank O’Hara, who got what de Kooning was up to more than probably any other critic of his time. That Hess would step in after O’Hara’s death as de Kooning’s most powerful critical supporter and the editor of ARTnews is intriguing, but one wonders how the last rooms of the show looked to a late-’60s audience used to Minimalism. For sure de Kooning was far from over, as the remaining two periods of Elderfield’s show makes spectacularly clear. First there is, for me, the third knockout wall—five paintings from 1975 and 1977, including “. . . Whose Name was Writ in Water” and “Screams of Children Come from Seagulls” (both 1975), about which I cannot argue with de Kooning’s own assessment: “I made those paintings one after the other, no trouble at all…I couldn’t miss. It’s a nice feeling.” Ostensibly “landscapes of the body,” they are, particularly in combination with each other, the visual equivalent of a master class.
Then, finally, the room of paintings from 1981-87, about which much has been speculated, and about which more is still to be learned and said. Presented in isolation to a skeptical public in a 1997 exhibition, they perform two critical tasks in this retrospective. First, they allow de Kooning to open up even more while (again, contrarily) shutting many things down, all without losing a punch often on par with many of the other heavy hitters mentioned above. Then, they provide a way back into the very first room of the exhibition, enabling the situation of de Kooning’s work in sum to be a perpetual loop, the very thing that makes him modern and more than modern all at once.