3.6 / Review

From New York: de Kooning: A Retrospective

By Mark Van Proyen December 7, 2011

The Museum of Modern Art’s entire sixth floor is given over to this sprawling and deeply worthwhile exhibition of an American master curated by John Elderfield, with each of the seven rooms configured as an isolated chapter of a larger story. But the question is this: do the sum of these chapters tell us anything that we do not know? The show confirms that de Kooning was the most European, most expressionist, and least abstract of the American abstract expressionist painters, and the display of four distinct periods of figurative painting and one more of his troubling clamdigger series of bronze sculptures supports that story. So does the fact that almost none of his pre-1957 abstract works stray too far from the claustrophobic fussiness of Cubism-derived composition. For better and for worse, these are the salient attributes that distinguish his work from that of Jackson Pollock, de Kooning’s most abstract and least European supposed rival (keeping in mind that said rivalry was more a function of the competition between two critics, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, than it was of any contest between the two artists).

Montauk I, 1969; oil on canvas; 88 x 77 in. Courtesy of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT.

But something else becomes apparent when one strolls into the gallery devoted to what de Kooning was up to in the late 1960s and ’70s. Many of these paintings were previously presented at a Guggenheim Museum exhibition held in 1978 titled Willem De Kooning in East Hampton. They show the artist taking virtuoso victory laps in stunning displays of bravura paint handling wedded to lustrous and baroque picture forms of the type seen in works like Montauk I (1969) or Whose Name Was Writ in Water (1975). Previous to that exhibition, de Kooning was the undisputed darling of every art critic of any import, and up until that point, no American artist (including Pollock) could claim to have equaled him in the receipt of unremittingly lavish praise. It is also worth remembering that these approbations were mirrored by legions of graduate painting students in the ’60s and ’70s, whose attempts at mirroring his signature wet-on-wet dragged brush technique were as widespread a cliché as the imitations of Gerhard Richter’s blurs are in our own moment. All of that would end in 1978, when Rosenberg and Thomas Hess, two major critics who had been de Kooning’s supporters, suddenly died, leading others to short his stock by proclaiming that the work of the then seventy-five-year-old artist was showing signs of exhaustion and faltering focus. For the record, I would like to say here that this shift in critical opinion was about seven years ahead of itself. But let’s get back to examining the nature of the victory and self-vindication celebrated by these first twelve years of the East Hampton paintings, because that’s where the real story lives. The victory of which I write was over the psychological damage that was done by the artist’s mother, and given the fact that de Kooning was unable to control his alcoholism until after he was eighty-one, it may have only been a victory of the Pyrrhic type.

I mean this quite seriously. According to biographical testimony given by de Kooning’s sister, the artist’s early childhood in north Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, was marred by privation and a frustrated mother who had a sadistic zeal for excesses of corporal punishment (is there a Dr. Freud in the house?).1 We also know that he matched his decades of alcoholism with much philandering, as if he was always seeking a new version of la femme enfant to provide a reassuringly worshipful antidote to the frightening specter of maternal menace that haunted his psyche like a great white whale.

Two Women with Still Life, 1952; pastel on paper; 22 1/2 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

It is the power of that haunting that interests us, and we see it in all four series of work that address the archetypal theme of woman, with very special emphasis placed on the third series of six that were painted between 1950 and 1953, when they were exhibited as a memorable group at the Sidney Janis Gallery. These are de Kooning’s most famous works, and each is an image of deep primordial terror. In all of them, one sees massive female figures sporting shark-toothed sneers and large eyes filled with predatory glee, all formed out of interlocking layers of thick and undulate slatherings of grimy oil paint. Less than a decade earlier, de Kooning began the first series of such works around the time he married the youthful Elaine de Kooning (née Fried), posing their slender sitters as wide-eyed innocents amid crisp arabesques of pink and turquoise. The fact that their marriage ended around 1950 might serve as partial explanation for the more fearsome later works, but the best way to see all four series is as a sequence of moments capturing a she-demon coming to the surface of consciousness, finally exploding through the picture plane to be reformed as the lump-like bronze sculptures that he made from 1968 to 1973, all of which look like piles of quasi-animate excrement. De Kooning’s emotional shit had finally been externalized and exorcised, allowing him to bring all of his considerable talents to paint with an unencumbered freedom. That freedom is seen in the aforementioned East Hampton paintings made from 1964 to 1979, and it ended about 1981.

There are two rooms devoted to de Kooning’s controversial late works, and as sad as they are, they too are part of the story. Large and colorful, these paintings are but a few of the over two hundred works that came out of his studio in those few years leading up to the artist being declared mentally incompetent in 1989 (he died in 1997). The cynical stench of financially motivated overproduction is everywhere to be seen in these unfocused gesticulations of contrived chromaticism and empty pseudospontaneity. They seem to put to rest malicious art world gossip pointing at an Alzheimer’s-afflicted artist manipulated into fits of ambient mark-making just to keep the lucrative game going a little bit longer. Thus was the whimper that was de Kooning’s end.


de Kooning: A Retrospective is on view at The Museum of Modern Art, in New York, through January 9, 2012.


  1. 1. For biographical information about de Kooning, see Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan’s De Kooning: An American Master (New York: Random House, 2004).

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