When the Museum of Modern Art devotes 18,000 square feet of space to about 200 artworks by a single artist, it is effectively arguing that artist belongs in the penthouse of the pantheon of modern art.
So, does Willem de Kooning, now receiving the full retrospective treatment from MoMA and curator John Elderfield, merit the star treatment? You bet. “De Kooning: A Retrospective” and its fantastic catalogue make an overwhelming case that de Kooning was America’s greatest figurative painter, and that any discussion of the greatest artists of the century — Picasso, Matisse, Pollock, Judd, Warhol — must include him.
Elderfield’s exhibition rests on two pillars: It effectively argues that the case for de Kooning is based on the work he did between the early 1940s and the late 1960s. Then it liberally includes de Kooning’s drawings throughout the first 40-odd years of the exhibition, a suggestion that de Kooning’s work on paper stands up to his canvases.
Elderfield’s decision to lightly skip through the lesser, later abstract paintings that de Kooning made after the 1960s is well-considered. The late works eat up square footage — those paintings are typically large so they still occupy several galleries — but ultimately Elderfield offers just 25 paintings from the last 27 years of de Kooning’s life. (Elderfield shows about twice that many works from just one peak decade, the 1940s.)
The emphasis on de Kooning’s best years allows Elderfield to focus on de Kooning’s signature innovation, on what made de Kooning great: His marriage of the emergent American interest in full-field composition, manifest destiny of the canvas as explored by Westerners such as Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still and later by Adolph Gottlieb and Arshile Gorky, with the European interest in the figure.
When he wanted to be, de Kooning was also a top-notch abstract painter. The mostly and sometimes entirely black-and-white abstractions de Kooning made in the late 1940s, represented at MoMA by more than two dozen works, are among the finest abstractions ever painted. When discussing the greatest American abstraction, de Kooning’s late ’40s painting ranks right up there with Pollock’s drips, Still’s scything canyons, Mark Rothko‘s color clouds, Barnett Newman’s cinematic fields, John Marin’s landscape-based watercolors and Richard Diebenkorn‘s Ocean Park paintings. [Image: de Kooning, Painting, 1948. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art.]
But what really set de Kooning apart was his creation of a unified theory that merged one of Europe’s great painting traditions with the innovations beginning to happen in America. Yes, other artists were working on the same problem — Still’s Western-landscape-rooted abstractions were motivated in part by the way Rembrandt and Cezanne handled paint, and for a time Pollock tried to Americanize European religious painting — but de Kooning took on the broadest European tradition in the most focused way and found a way to tie it to an American vanguard increasingly obsessed with something else: pure abstraction.
De Kooning’s interest in all-over compositions is first evident in early-1940s geometric abstractions such as Pink Landscape (c.1942, at right) , a painting in which he painted a thin black rectangle near the periphery of a piece of composition board so as to define his field and then proceeded to fill it with not-quite-familiar shapes. In other paintings from about the same time, including Summer Couch (1943) and The Wave (1942-44), de Kooning seems to be consciously avoiding then-ubiquitous biomorphism in favor of painting-stuffing splotches of color.
From there, de Kooning begins to merge his interest in the figure with American-style composition. One of the revelations of MoMA’s exhibition is how often de Kooning used Matisse as his bridge to Europe, especially in his paintings of the 1940s. The early de Kooning masterpiece Queen of Hearts (1943-46, above) is a particularly good example. It features a woman in what seems at first a fairly typical three-quarter view, but with the sitter’s far shoulder launched above the rest of her body, a mirror of how Matisse used a similar pose in The Embroidered Dark Blouse (1936). (For centuries European painters have masked cribs by using a mirror version of what they borrow. De Kooning too.) Next, de Kooning doesn’t just position his sitter in space, as Matisse did when he presented Greta Prozor or Olga Merson in three-quarter view. Instead, de Kooning uses the three-quarter view to extend the figure from one side of the canvas to the other, to begin to fill the field.
Most astonishing of all is the way in which de Kooning melds his subject’s near shoulder into the pink background and into her pink hair, a move he likely adapted from Matisse’s The Italian Woman (1916, at left), wherein Matisse extends the background of the painting over his sitter’s shoulder and hair. (Once again, de Kooning uses Matisse’s trick on the opposite side of his model.) But while Matisse — and most painters until now — are happy to focus the viewer’s attention on the sitter, de Kooning isn’t done. As he moves through the 1940s, he fills corners. Here he flanks his Queen with rectangles of color, rectangles that recall the way Matisse filled space and added faux-depth to paintings (and particularly drawings) by using mirrors and the way that Picasso stuffed Matisse’s mirrors into corners of paintings.
De Kooning’s next great painting — in fact, his greatest painting, period — is Woman (1948), the painting that initiated his most intense five-year study of the female figure. It is part of the 1948-53 series of about a dozen Womans (and the related works on paper) that is one of the great bursts in Western art, a remarkable series during which de Kooning synthesized seemingly everything he’d studied until then. Suddenly his figures are no longer serene, instead they’re hard-fought and eventually flattened, scratched, pushed and spread. (Later, in the 1960s, they’d be splayed, too.)
The 1948 Woman, which, like Queen of Hearts, is in the collection of the Hirshhorn, started it all. It may be the most underrated painting of the post-war period. In large part because ARTnews editor (and later Metropolitan curator) Tom Hess helped make the later and less revolutionary Woman I a Publishing Event in the pages of his magazine — and probably because it is at MoMA and the 1948 painting is in Washington — Woman I is more famous. Most recently, the Hirshhorn Woman was the subject of about one page in Mark Stevens’ and Annalyn Swan’s fantastic 2004 de Kooning biography. Woman I received about 20 times as much space. No matter, Woman is a much greater work.
The Hirshhorn Woman marks the debut of the demonic toothy grin that de Kooning would use as a signifier of womanly presence in seemingly abstract canvases such as Excavation and the menacing eye or eyes that would recur on de Kooning’s Womans for years, Picasso’s stare gone expressionist.
De Kooning uses every trick he can think of to tease out a seated woman to fill the whole picture: A mysterious star-like sunburst in the upper left and a pentagon-shaped framed mirror (?) in the upper-right team up to fill the space to either side of the sitter’s head. Where else in Western art does a woman sit with one leg apparently crossed horizontally, a clever painterly trick that fills out much of the bottom quarter of the painting? De Kooning also opens up the chair, flatting it against the picture plane so much that the two arms each come within an inch or two of touching the two outer edges of the canvas.
If there is a painting that indicates de Kooning believes he’s transitioned into the big leagues of modern art, this is it. He unabashedly loads up Woman with references to the two painters with whom he’s measuring himself up, Picasso and Matisse: The woman’s dress is pink-ish purple, almost exactly the color with which Picasso marked Marie-Therese Walter. (Speaking of whom: Marie-Therese was yellow-haired too.) De Kooning gives his sitter unusually elastic limbs, probably a reference to the late-1920s paintings in which Matisse and Picasso conversed through Gumby-like seated women. The disappearing-shoulder trick de Kooning borrowed from Matisse’s Italian Woman is back for an encore (this time on the same side of the canvas as it was in the Matisse), as is a yellow chair, an indication that de Kooning probably noticed how oft Matisse put his sitter in yellow chairs. Finally, in the lower-left corner, de Kooning seems to insert himself into the painting via a rectangular patch of white, a signifier of a palette (or in this case perhaps a sketch-pad) that Matisse and Picasso famously used to nod toward with each other in Goldfish and Palette (1914) and Harlequin (1915), respectively. Again, de Kooning masks his crib-cum-hat-tip, putting it on the opposite side of the canvas from Matisse and Picasso .
De Kooning made several other Woman paintings before late 1950, when he visited a show that would change his art forever. I’ll pick up there tomorrow.