Friday, September 16, 2011

Jill Krementz covers de Kooning at MoMA

“Every so often, a painter has to destroy painting. Cezanne did it, Picasso did it with Cubism. Then Pollock did it. He busted our idea of a picture all to hell. Then there could be new paintings again.”
― Willem de Kooning
de Kooning: A Retrospective
September 18, 2011 – January 9, 2012

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) is widely considered to be among the most important and prolific artists of the 20th century. When you see this show you will see why.

Still, the road to success was a long one. According to his biographers, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, the de Koonings, Bill and Elaine, were once so poor they were not only eating off paper plates, they were washing those paper plates for their next meal.

MoMA’s comprehensive retrospective, organized by John Elderfield, the museum’s Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture, brings together over 200 works from public and private collections. It is the first time the museum has devoted the entire sixth floor to a single artist. It was a good decision.

The retrospective, covering the years from 1916-1987, represents nearly every type of work de Kooning made: drawings, paintings, prints, and sculptures. Spread out over seven galleries and covering seven eras of the artist’s development, the show follows his trajectory from a figurative painter to an abstract expressionist. Jerry Neuner and his team must be congratulated for the magnificent installation.

David Frankel, with the collaboration of Lauren Mahoney, Jennifer Field, Delphine Huisinga, Jim Coddington, Susan Lake, and, of course with the great Mr. Elderfield, has edited one of the most beautiful exhibition catalogues I’ve ever seen.
To accompany the exhibition, the museum has produced a landmark publication. An introductory essay by John Elderfield provides a newly detailed account of de Kooning's development, his intellectual context, the sources on which he drew, and his aesthetic intentions and achievements over the course of his life. 504 pages, 658 illustrations, of which 528 are in color. Price: $55 (paperback); $75 (hardcover).
In the lobby, prior to the press preview, artist Mary Heilmann. Ms. Heilmann is one of my favorite painters and a neighbor of mine on the east end of Long Island. Also in the lobby waiting for 10 am press preview to begin: Susan Morris. Ms. Morris has been working for the Ford Foundation where she has produced a conference on the arts, curated exhibitions, worked on public programs and is now working on a permanent art collection.
Entrance to the exhibition.
On the wall as you enter the exhibition are large images representing the six stages in the creation of de Kooning's Woman I.
Still Life
Oil on cardboard

de Kooning made Still Life when he was about twelve years old and working as an apprentice at a design and decorative art firm in his hometown of Rotterdam. During his four years at the firm, de Kooning learned to letter and paint decorative designs and to simulate material textures such as wood grain and marble. “They would teach me formulas for mixing paints and combining mediums,” de Kooning recalled. “There were as many techniques as there were surfaces to work on, and there were special skills for manipulating textures and transparencies."
He made Still Life (Bowl, Pitcher and Jug) about four years later. It is the only surviving work from an evening drawing course that the artist took at Beeldende Kunsten en Technische Wetenschappen (Academy of fine arts and applied sciences). Minute dots of conté crayon with a mixture of graphite or charcoal and wax create an allover atmospheric effect. Another student at the academy later told Judith Wolfe, a de Kooning scholar, that a drawing of this precision would have taken a whole year to complete. De Kooning’s training in fine and applied art established his complex understanding of materials and techniques, later applied to his mature work.
Still Life
Oil on Canvas
Still life
Oil on canvas
Untitled (The Cow Jumps Over the Moon)
Pink Landscape
Oil on composition board
The Wave
c. 1942–44
Oil on fiberboard

De Kooning sometimes began composing abstract works like The Wave by drawing large letters in charcoal across the surface and then transforming them into organic or biomorphic shapes. The resulting discrete forms in this work also suggest the collage methods that de Kooning had used as a commercial artist and designer. According to his friend Joop Sanders, he “used to do these things that they do in commercial art layouts—they cut out and do a sort of collage, a final pasteout. That’s something he also did a great deal of in his early paintings.”
Summer Couch
Oil on Composition board
Pink Angels
c. 1945
Oil and charcoal on canvas

Pink Angels marked a radical new direction for de Kooning’s art in its aggressive distortion of the figure and unconventional approach to drawing with charcoal on a painted surface. De Kooning made no attempt to paint over or otherwise obscure his charcoal revisions. The network of lines scrawled across the painted surface reveals previous versions of the work, suggesting multiple placements for the different elements. This complex layering is also the result of another important strategy: de Kooning used drawings on tracing paper to position and reposition drawn shapes beside and above each other on the canvas, a technique that partly accounts for the shifting dissonances that animate the work’s surface.
Pink Lady
Oil and charcoal on composition board
Oil, pencil and charcoal on canvas
Portrait of Elaine
Pencil on paper

Elaine was de Kooning's wife. My husband Kurt Vonnegut and I once spent an afternoon with her on producer David Wolper's boat, setting sail in Sag Harbour. I have always loved Elaine de Kooning's paintings. Much of her work, as well as her collection, can be seen at Mark Borgi's Gallery in Bridgehampton.

Kurt and I also went to the de Kooning's house in the Springs where we dined on the outside porch. It was a warm summer evening and we were joined by his daughter Lisa. Lisa de Kooning is now co-executor with John Eastman of her father's estate.
Self-portrait with Imaginary Brother
Pencil on paper

Just so you know, de Kooning's pencil lines are very faintly drawn in what is one of my
favorite drawings.
A view of the galleries. You will marvel at the way one gallery flows into the next.
Black Friday
Oil and enamel on pressed-wood panel

“Even abstract shapes must have a likeness,” de Kooning insisted. In Black Friday, for example, a rooflike form is visible at upper left, as is the bodily presence of a looping finger and fragments of green in the lower right that suggest a verdant landscape. The artist became interested in painting that was like what he called a “glimpse,” its parts having the quality of objects caught sight of while quickly glancing out of the window, crossing the street, or coming into a room. Such an experience, to him, was “like an occurrence ... an encounter.”

Black Friday was included in de Kooning’s first solo exhibition, mounted at the Charles Egan Gallery in April 1948. The exhibition included many of the black and-white abstractions on view in this show at MoMA and it firmly established the artist as a leading figure in the movement that would later be known as Abstract Expressionism.
Seated Man
c. 1939
Oil on canvas

Between 1937 and 1944, de Kooning made a series of paintings of men, often described as alienated, Depression-era everymen, that contained some of his earliest figurative paintings. It was the only time men were his subjects for a sustained period. He began each painting by producing anatomical studies in pencil, sometimes stripping to the waist in front of a mirror and using himself as a model. The trousers of the figure in Seated Man are rendered in a smooth, fluid manner, while charcoal lines in the head and torso are evidence of erasing and reworking, as de Kooning often did in crucial areas of the figure. The gridded background establishes an ambiguous space in which the man appears to sit in a state of boredom or resignation conveyed by his lidded eyes, downturned mouth, and fingers drumming the table.
Oil on masonite
Woman Sitting
Oil and charcoal on composition board
Seated Figure (Classic Male)
c. 1941-43
Oil and charcoal on wood panel
Oil on board
Carole Lombard
Oil on parchment mounted on board

Carole Lombard includes an elongated, amoeba-shaped figure with an oversized, squinted eye. This painting belongs to a group of works on the theme of secretaries and stenographers, a subject that seems odd for de Kooning until one considers the surge in young women entering the workplace in the years immediately following World War II.

The title may have been prompted by the voluptuous and celebrated film actress of the same name or by the surname of the lead character in The Secretary’s Day, a popular 1947 instructional film dramatizing the lives of secretary Jean Carroll and her stenographer sidekick, Marge Quinn.
Oil, enamel, and charcoal on paper on
composition board
Detail from Mailbox showing de Kooning's signature
Oil on paper mounted on board

Following a series of breakthrough paintings of the mid-1940s, de Kooning found himself at an impasse, and he turned to drawing for assistance.

In Self-portrait, (left) as well as the two drawings beneath this one, a nearly identical male figure appears, evidence of the artist’s use of tracing methods to transfer an image from one composition to another—a technique he employed in
both figurative and abstract works.

These drawings, two of them vividly colored and crisply graphic, were made in the same period that de Kooning was painting his black and-white abstractions. Such simultaneous exploration of abstraction and figuration, as well as the use of complex drawing techniques in his painting, was a common thread in de Kooning’s practice. He was never particularly concerned with distinctions, once remarking, “After a while all kinds of painting become just painting for you—abstract or otherwise.”
Untitled (Man and Woman)
Oil on paper mounted on board
Untitled (Two Figures)
Oil, watercolor, charcoal, and graphite on paper
Pink Lady
Oil and charcoal on paper on fiberboard
A man in black photographs and talks on phone simultaneously.
Artist Mary Heilmann and her pal, Terry Myers. Mr. Myers teaches a class called 'de Kooning--Then and Now' at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Professor Myers had flown to New York City for the day to attend the press preview.

"Unfortunately none of my students will be able to see de Kooning's "Excavation" this semester because it's here at MoMA on loan from The Art Institute of Chicago."
Joan Cardoso (from Portugal) who writes for Publico newspaper where she has worked for eleven years, four of them on the art beat.

Her comment: "The show is very tight and concise but at the same time very broad."
Oil and enamel on canvas

Excavation is de Kooning’s largest easel painting and is the culminating work in his body of late-1940's abstractions. Several of de Kooning’s friends recalled that it began as an interior scene with human figures, but those figures eventually broke into body parts embedded in the thick paint of the finished painting, including eyes and a set of teeth just left of center.

In 1951, de Kooning said, “I’m not interested in ‘abstracting’ or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line and color. I paint this way because I can keep putting more and more things in—drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space.”
Oil and enamel on cardboard

Asheville was the sole painting that de Kooning made during the summer of 1948, when he was teaching at Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina. Although multicolored, the painting follows the same principles of his recent black-and-white paintings, in which he created an abstract composition from figural shapes. De Kooning included a large eye at right, legs and hooves of animals across the lower half, and, at center, a red shape that forms the bottom half of a silhouetted face, with open lips revealing a row of teeth. Although relatively small, Asheville took nearly two months of extended effort to complete. De Kooning repeatedly painted, scraped down, and repainted it, but according to Pat Passlof, one of his students, “he wanted the paint to appear as if it had materialized there magically, all at once, as if it were ‘blown’ on.”
Oil, enamel, and charcoal on canvas

This painting belongs to de Kooning’s second series of Woman paintings.

As with the other works in this series, the figure nearly fills the canvas. Her direct, confrontational gaze marks a departure from the tranquil seated figures of the artist’s first Woman series, from the early 1940s. Here, de Kooning drew pins around his subject’s tilted head, resembling a crown of thorns but also calling attention to his technique of pinning drawings on tracing paper to his canvases in order to test compositional changes. He likely traced the shape of the head from an earlier painting, Woman (1948).
Gary Van Dis, who recently left a full time job at Conde Nast in order to spearhead special projects for Si Newhouse.
Two Women IV
Pencil, colored chalk, charcoal, and gouache on paper
Two Women
Pastel, charcoal and pencil on paper
Two Women
Oil and charcoal on canvas

In the summer of 1952, working in East Hampton, on Long Island, de Kooning began a series of pastels depicting two standing female figures rendered in a more painterly and freely composed style than some of his earlier drawings of women. Two Women carries forward the drawings’ theme in oil on canvas. A horizontal line divides the heads from the bodies, especially in the figure on the right, a reminder that de Kooning constructed his compositions by arranging fragments of drawings. With its extreme close-up view and more abstract approach, the right-hand figure in Two Women also signals the artist’s transition to a new series of abstract landscapes, which he would begin in the mid-1950s.
Installation photograph of gallery with Woman series.
Woman II
Oil on canvas
Woman III
Oil on canvas
Woman I
Oil on canvas
Woman V
Oil on canvas
Lauren Mahoney. "I'm the curatorial assistant. I worked on the exhibition with Mr. Elderfield and I wrote three of the chapters for the catalogue." Lauren Mahoney, John Elderfield, and Mark Stevens.
This is an authoritative and brilliant exploration of the art, life and world of de Kooning. It is an epic three-part panorama--Rotterdam, Manhattan and the Hamptons of a dashingly handsome artist who was treated like a movie star.
Mark Stevens and his wife, Annalyn Swan have co-authored the definitive biography on de Kooning. Published by Knopf in 2004 and now available in paperback, it won both a Pulitzer and The National Book Critics Circle award.

Ms. Swan: "As for work, we're off to the UK in a week for our new guy--Francis Bacon. Actually we've been at work on a Bacon biography for almost four years now. It's our great good luck that the three British biographers who preceded us never checked their facts and simply bought whatever Bacon put out there ... which was deliberately misleading about his life and background and early years. So there's huge room here for a reinterpretation, and also for setting him in an international context. I love tackling these big, fascinating figures."
John Elderfield and Annalyn Swan.
Study for Woman
c. 1952
Charcoal and gouache on tracing paper.

This painting is in the collection of Arne and Milly Glimcher. Mr. Glimcher and the Pace Gallery recently snagged the de Kooning estate away from Gagosian. It was THE talk of the art world.
John Zeaman, a freelance art critic and author of Dog Walks Man.

"The de Kooning of MoMA’s show is an iconoclast among abstractionists, an artist who never let himself be tied down by theory or style.
Unlike Pollock, who was a primitive by nature, the European-born de Kooning was well-grounded in art history and could draw like an old master.
To paint this way meant working against his skills. He made a virtue of being off balance and snatching at fleeting perceptions, once wisecracking that he was 'a slipping glimpser.'"
Benjamin Sutton, who writes for The L Magazine. Mr. Sutton is looking at The Time of the Fire, 1956,
Oil and enamel on canvas.

"Walking through this immense exhibition, I kept expecting to reach that saturation point at which one ceases to be able to differentiate and appreciate specific works, but that never happened. I attribute this to de Kooning's innumerable shifts in style, a constant questioning and courage to start over that the exhibition conveys superbly."
Merritt Parkway
Oil on canvas

Merritt Parkway was first shown at de Kooning’s hugely successful exhibition at Sidney Janis Gallery in 1959, alongside other paintings made with sweeping arm gestures and collectively dubbed “abstract parkway landscapes” by the art critic Thomas Hess. “Most of them are landscapes and highways and sensations of that, outside the city,” de Kooning later explained, “with the feeling of going to the city or coming from it.” As the artist was painting Merritt Parkway, he was reminded of a route by that name that runs through southern Connecticut and is known for its distinctive bridges and manicured landscaping.
Maria Ramirez writes for El Mundo. Walter Robinson, major domo of ArtNet.
Bolton Landing
Oil on canvas
Suburb in Havana
Oil on canvas
Installation photograph.
Oil on canvas
Collection David Geffen, Los Angeles

February signaled a shift in de Kooning’s attention away from his urban environment and toward the more rural regions of the Hudson River Valley and the East End of Long Island, where he had begun to spend his summers in 1952 and which became his permanent home in 1963. Here, the brighter colors of his abstract urban landscapes have been replaced by natural hues of coral, ocher, and deep sea blue. Hatched brushstrokes surround broad areas of similar colors to construct thicket-like spaces, while tonal variety, ranging from bright white to midnight blue, gives the illusion of light and shadow.
Two Women (Study for "Clam Diggers:)
Oil on paper mounted on Masonite
Clam Diggers
Oil on paper on composition board
Clam Digger
James Kalm is at every press preview making videos, which he then blogs. He now has a show at Lesley Heller Workspace on Orchard Street under his real name, Loren Munk.
On the wall, left to right:

Black and White Rome S
Black Enamel and collage on paper

Black and White Rome T
Oil on paper

Litho #1 (Waves #1)
Lithograph, drawn on a stone
Black ink on ivory smooth wove paper
Untitled V (1980) and Untitled VII (1980)
Both paintings are oil on canvas. The one on the left is owned by Peter Marino, the one on the right by Henry Kravis.
A cluster of small bronzes
all untitled
Untitled VIII
Oil on canvas
David Frankel, who edited the superb catalogue accompanying the exhibition. Arthur Lubow, who writes for The New York Times Sunday Magazine. Mr. Lubow is working on a new biography about Diane Arbus.
One of the walls in the exhibit.
Untitled II
Oil on Canvas
Untitled VI
Oil on canvas
Untitled III

Oil on canvas


Pirate (Untitled II)
Oil on canvas
Around noon, after spending a few hours viewing the exhibit, members of the press convened in the lobby where they were treated to a conversation between MoMA Director Glenn Lowry and curator John Elderfield.

We were also treated, for the first time ever, to chairs. As one journalist remarked: "If raising the admission fee to $25 helped pay for these seats then I say good for them!"

It's also a first for this new format, a dialogue between director and curator, and it was great. I hope it will continue.
New York Post's Arts Editor Barbara Hoffman. Amy Schichtel, Executive Director of The Willem de Kooning Foundation, which is headquartered on Madison Avenue in Manhattan.
Delphine Huisinga, Jennifer Field, and Lauren Mahoney, the three young women who worked with John Elderfield on the de Kooning exhibition
and catalogue.
Ann Temkin, chief curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA.
The conversation ... John Elderfield recounted the problems of the last several months when it came to getting the art works to New York. "We had to deal with an earthquake, a hurricane, and then massive flooding. Only weeks ago, three guys transporting a painting to MoMA had to get off the road and spend the night, with a de Kooning, at a Days Inn." Glenn Lowry applauding Mr. Elderfield at the conclusion of their dialogue.
On the wall is de Kooning's theatrical backdrop called Labyrinth from 1946. It's 17 square feet.
Glenn Lowry.

"This retrospective at MoMA is as substantial a look at de Kooning as possible. It's been a ground-breaking project and one we hope will cause us to look at de Kooning anew and with even greater admiration."
Peter Reed and Ann Temkin. Mr. Reed is MoMA's Senior Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs. Detail of the back of Ms. Temkin's fabulous Ports 1961 dress. Mr. Reed is no slouch himself in his Armani suit.
Art documentarian Larry Qualls standing in front of a painting in the last gallery, Untitled VI, 1986.

"This exhibition makes me understand de Kooning's late paintings in a way I never did before."
Roberta Smith, art critic for The New York Times, and her husband Jerry Saltz, who is the art critic for New York Magazine. MoMA's Glenn Lowry with Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith.
Daniela Stigh, MoMA Press officer,
talks with Katya Kazakina from Bloomberg News.
Katya Kazakina.
Writer Deborah Solomon is the author of several biographies of American artists, including Jackson Pollock and Joseph Cornell. Ms. Solomon is working on another about Norman Rockwell.
Ann Temkin and Deborah Solomon. Writers Regina Weinreich and Phoebe Hoban. Ms. Weinreich writes a blog called Gossip Central. Ms. Hoban wrote a biography about Alice Neel.
Lee Rosenbaum whose blog "CultureGrrl" is intelligent and informed.

"This show is marvelous because it takes you through de Kooning's entire career from his earliest works to when he was hitting his stride and then immediately breaking it because he was never satisfied."
Jason Kaufman, a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.

"De Kooning was one of the last purely low-tech masters of oil painting. Following the variously suave and jagged movements of his brush in the portrayals of women, you sense his uneasy attraction to the sensuality of the flesh. This is the kind of show that invites slow looking, not the post-MTV-generation glimpse and giggle that contemporary artists often demand."
Marek Bartelik is the President of AICA-USA, International Association of Art Critics. Maria Escalante, my wonderful assistant.
John Elderfield has organized a great exhibition which I predict will be the blockbuster of the season. Elderfield is as much an artist as the man whose works grace the walls of the sixth floor
of MoMA.
Willem de Kooning in his studio, Springs, New York, 1968. Photograph by Hans Namath. Mr. Namath was a friend and colleague and it is a pleasure to see his photographs of de Kooning both on the walls at Moma and in the catalogue.

“The attitude that nature is chaotic and that the artist puts order into it is a very absurd point of view, I think. All that we can hope for is to put some order into ourselves.”

― Willem de Kooning
This Photojournal is dedicated to MoMA press office Daniela Stigh with my thanks for all her help and continuous good cheer.

Text and photographs © by Jill Krementz: all rights reserved.

All paintings, drawings, and sculptures: (C) 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.