Friday, October 14, 2011

MOMA. 11 West 53rd street William deKooning: A Retrospective, through Jan 9th

William deKooning: A Retrospective, through Jan 9th

I've been kind of busy of late and haven't had time to put up any posts, but I had to write something about this. Let me say ahead of time whatever I say won't be enough. This is a big show (comprising nearly 200 paintings, drawings, and sculpture) covering the seven decade career of a hugely important artist. If you care at all about painting, or more generally art, or even more generally visually interesting experiences then I can not urge you enough to see this show. It's always a good sign when you leave the museum feeling like someone gave you a shot of adrenaline. That's how I felt when I walked out of the MoMA.

There's a quote at the beginning of the exhibition by deKooning that reads something like (I'm paraphrasing) "I'm not interested in making a good painting, but in seeing how far I can take it". This deceptively simple statement really sets the tone for the exhibit. He's considered one of the two or three major figures of the Abstract Expressionist movement, and along with Jackson Pollock, is known for an improvisational "action painting" technique and, all over or non-hierarchtical compositions. The other thing he's known for is reacting against the ideals of non-representation by reintroducing the figure into his work. If this retrospective proves anything it should prove that this second part of his reputation is complete bullshit. He never reintroduce representation, because he never abandoned it in the first place. DeKooning never bought into the pure abstractionist ideals of the time, as the critics then would have you believe. He simply saw nonrepresentational form as a newer exciting vehicle that alongside representational form could expand his vocabulary as an artist. He embraced the contradiction between these kinds of imagery, which is one of the things that made his paintings so good. He never cared about theory, or ideology. Just painting, and damn could he ever paint.

In the first gallery we see the mark made on him by artists like de Chirico, Miró, Picasso, Mattise, and Mondrian in the 1920's and 30's. While their influence stayed with him throughout his career, they too were just tools for his ever evolving artistic repertoire. What's most visible are his amazing gifts as colorist and draftsman in these paintings and drawings . In the next gallery we see him abandon both those talents to create the black and white abstractions of the '40's that earned him his first significant recognition. Then, over the years he slowly reintroduced color back into the work.

A lot is made of his "women" paintings of the early 1950's, where the figure dissolves into the background and then reconfigures. Maybe it's because these most directly utilize traditionally recognizable imagery. One of the things I find most interesting about these works is that he seems to use the figure to describe the paint more so than the other way around. Personally I prefer the more landscape inspired "full arm sweep" action paintings of the late 50"s and early 60's. The speed of the huge house painters brush creates more pictorial dynamism than just about any modernist artwork I can think of. Some of the brushstrokes are larger than the viewers standing in front of them. No one ever made paintings like these before deKooning, and the painters that did it after him didn't do it nearly as well. Nearly 50 years later they're still powerful and exhilarating to look at.

The next couple of galleries show his work from the mid '60's through 1980 where he incorporates the figure into a landscape space. He uses a really slippery wet on wet technique that he also finds a way to utilize in his bronze sculpture. In them, the clay looks like it was so wet and slippery you wonder how he managed to cast it. The nebulous painterliness of these 2 and 3 dimensional works show the influence of artists like Soutine, but I couldn't help thinking of Rubens. That would be if Rubens were a 20th century abstractionist maybe he would have painted like this. I don't know if anyone else will see that, but I did. I know, it's a stretch but... whatever.

Then in the last couple of galleries are the late stripped down work from the mid and late 80's which I''m not too crazy about. I think they were more a product of his declining physical and mental health than any artistic choice. But, I couldn't help but feel that if someone had never heard of deKooning's work, and was walking through this exhibit seeing it for the first time, they must be thinking "Wow! Now what does he do next?" I think this is the result of a kind of enthusiastic artistic openness. When I was in art school I remember a professor talking about open and closed paintings. She said that paintings should always start open, and then slowly start to close down as they develop. Some paintings never close down all the way, because once a painting's closed it's hard to open it up again. DeKoonings work always stayed open. I think that this was so that if he decided he hadn't taken them as far as he could, he had a way to go back in, and take them further. Always wide open, like his mind.


  1. Wow! This is an exciting show. I really can't wait to see it. It is really intriguing what you wrote about he never left behind the figure but instead incorporated abstraction into his work. Abstraction as tool therefore and means to an end. I also liked what you wrote about how he uses the figure to describe the paint. It is an interesting twist of abstract arts paint for paints sake. I can't wait to see the show.

  2. Thanks. It's a great show. You should see it the next time you're in town. I'm planning to go back.