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MoMA stages first major retrospective of seven-decade career of Dutch-born Willem de Kooning
NEW YORK (AP) ' Six years in the making, the Willem de Kooning retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art is surely one of the not-to-be-missed shows of the fall season.
Occupying the museum's entire sixth-floor gallery space, the exhibition brings together nearly 200 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures that illuminate de Kooning's restless journey between abstraction and representation during nearly seven decades of work.
The show, opening to the public on Sunday, begins with two charming still lifes that reflect the Dutch-born artist's strong academic training and background in commercial art, including one painting he made as a boy of 12.
From there, the clearly organized exhibition tracks his early forays into modernism, including 1920s-era canvases bearing a striking resemblance to the work of Henri Matisse and Giorgio de Chirico.
Gradually, de Kooning discovers his own distinctive style, earning a reputation by age 40 as one of his generation's artistic greats. His fame was cemented with his first solo show in 1948, comprised of a series of abstract, black-and-white compositions. Yet during that same decade, he embarked on the first of several series of paintings of women, some inspired by his girlfriend Elaine Fried, whom he married in 1943 and who would become a noted artist in her own right.
It is the Woman paintings that are most unmistakably de Kooning, featuring an extraordinarily vivid cast of hulking, ferocious women with enormous breasts, wild eyes and deranged grins, painted in luscious swaths of lurid pink, orange and green. No wonder he once famously said, "Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented."
When the six canvases of the third Woman series were shown together in 1953, they caused a sensation. De Kooning was accused of hating women and reviled by modern art purists for abandoning abstraction.
By reassembling five of the six paintings, MoMA has pulled off something of a coup. Seeing them together makes it clear how silly it is to brand de Kooning a misogynist.
For the paintings are as much about the relationship between figure and field as they are about female archetypes. He builds both subject and background from the same bold, biomorphic and geometric shapes, obscuring any sharp division between the two.
"The landscape is in the Woman and there is Woman in the landscapes," he said of one painting from that era. And right about this time, he moved back into abstraction, this time focusing on features of the urban landscape, including the garbage-strewn sidewalks of downtown Manhattan, where he first rose to prominence as an artist.
The exhibition ends with de Kooning's spare abstract paintings of the 1980s, which feature smooth surfaces and brilliant ribbons of color and are quite unlike anything that came before. These late paintings are controversial, dismissed by some as largely the work of studio assistants due to his decline into dementia.
But John Elderfield, chief curator emeritus of paintings and sculpture, and the guiding force behind the exhibition, believes these "extraordinarily beautiful" works are the result of conscious aesthetic decisions de Kooning was capable of making up until about 1987.
For Elderfield, who retired from MoMA in 2008, the exhibition is truly a labor of love. Born in England, Elderfield came to the U.S. to pursue his art history studies in part because of his youthful admiration for de Kooning, who died in 1997 at age 92.
The show opens Sept. 18 and closes Jan. 9. It will not travel.