Willem de Kooning Still Dazzles

A new major retrospective recounts the artist’s seven-decade career and never-ending experimentation

Among the artists who emerged in the 1950s and '60s, Willem de Kooning, shown here in 1953, defied categorization. (Tony Vaccaro / akg-images)
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Gorky’s example, together with the creation of the Federal Art Project, which paid artists a living wage during the Depression, finally led de Kooning to commit himself to being a full-time artist. In the ’30s, Gorky and de Kooning became inseparable; their ongoing discussions about art helped each develop into a major painter. De Kooning, struggling to create a fresh kind of figurative art, often painted wan, melancholy portraits of men and, less frequently, women. He worked and reworked the pictures, trying to reconcile his classical training with his modernist convictions. He might allow a picture to leave his studio if a friend bought it, since he was chronically short of cash, but he discarded most of his canvases in disgust.

In the late ’30s, de Kooning met a young art student named Elaine Fried. They would marry in 1943. Fried was not only beautiful, her vivacity matched de Kooning’s reserve. Never scrimp on the luxuries, she liked to say, the necessities will take care of themselves. One of her friends, the artist Hedda Sterne, described her as a “daredevil.” “She believed in gestures without regret, and she delighted in her own spontaneity and exuberance,” Sterne said. “I was a lot of fun,” Elaine would later recall. “I mean, a lot of fun.” She also considered de Kooning a major artist—well before he became one—which may have bolstered his confidence.

A fresh sensation of the female figure, no doubt inspired by Elaine, began to course through de Kooning’s art. The color brightened. Boundaries fell away. He no longer seemed constrained by his classical training: the women in the paintings now threatened to break out and break apart; distinguishing figure from ground became, in places, difficult. The artist was beginning to master his ambiguous space. It seemed natural that de Kooning, who instinctively preferred movement to stillness and did not think the truth of the figure lay only in its surface appearance, would begin shifting along a continuum from the representational to the abstract. Yet even his most abstract pictures, as de Kooning scholar Richard Shiff has observed, “either began with a reference to the human figure or incorporated figural elements along the way.”

De Kooning’s move in the late ’40s toward a less realistic depiction of the figure may have been prompted, in part, by the arrival in the city earlier in the decade of a number of celebrated artists from Paris, notably André Breton and his circle of Surrealists, all refugees from the war. De Kooning was not generally a fan of Surrealism, but the movement’s emphasis on the unconscious mind, dreams and the inner life would have reinforced his own impatience with a purely realistic depiction of the world. The Surrealists and their patron, the socialite Peggy Guggenheim, made a big splash in New York. Their very presence inspired ambition in American artists.

Still, de Kooning remained on the margins. The Federal Art Project no longer existed and there was little to no market for modern American art. It was in this dark period that de Kooning began his great series of black-and-white abstractions. He and his close friend, the painter Franz Kline, unable to afford costly pigments, famously went out one day and bought inexpensive black and white enamel household paint and (according to legend) with devil-may-care abandon began turning out major works. It was not, of course, that simple. De Kooning had labored for many years to reach this moment; and, in a way, the moment now found him. The horror of World War II—and accounts of the Holocaust coming out of Europe—created a new perception among de Kooning and some American artists of a great, if bleak, metaphysical scale. (They also had before their eyes, in MoMA, Picasso’s powerful, monochromatic Guernica of 1937, his response to the fascist bombing of the Spanish city.) In contrast to their European contemporaries, the Americans did not live among the war’s ruins, and they came from a culture that celebrated a Whitmanesque boundlessness. De Kooning, whose city of birth had been pounded into rubble during the war, was both a European and an American, well positioned to make paintings of dark grandeur. In 1948, when he was almost 44, he exhibited his so-called “black and whites” at the small and little-visited Egan Gallery. It was his first solo show. Few pictures sold, but they were widely noticed and admired by artists and critics.

It was also in the late 1940s that Jackson Pollock began to make his legendary “drip” abstractions, which he painted on the floor of his studio, weaving rhythmic skeins of paint across the canvas. Pollock’s paintings, also mainly black and white, had a very different character from de Kooning’s. While generally abstract, de Kooning’s knotty pictures remained full of glimpsed human parts and gestures; Pollock’s conveyed a transcendent sense of release from the world. The titles of the two greatest pictures in de Kooning’s black-and-white series, Attic and Excavation, suggest that the artist does not intend to forget what the world buries or puts aside. (De Kooning no doubt enjoyed the shifting implications of the titles. Attic, for example, can refer to an actual attic, suggest the heights of heaven or recall ancient Greece.) Each painting is full of figurative incident—a turn of shoulder here, a swelling of hip there, but a particular body can be discerned in neither. “Even abstract shapes,” de Kooning said, “must have a likeness.”

De Kooning completed Excavation, his last and largest picture in the series, in 1950. The director of MoMA, Alfred Barr, then selected the painting, along with works by Pollock, Gorky and John Marin, to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale—a signal honor for all four American modernists. Journalists began to take notice. Pollock was the subject of a photo spread in Life magazine in 1949. The light of celebrity was beginning to focus on what had been an obscure corner of American culture. The Sidney Janis Gallery, which specialized in European masters, now began to pitch de Kooning and other American artists as worthy successors to Picasso or Mondrian. Critics, curators and art dealers increasingly began to argue that where art was concerned, New York was the new Paris.

By the early ’50s, De Kooning was a painter of growing renown with a blue-chip abstract style. Most of his contemporaries believed he would continue to produce paintings in that style. But in one of the most contrary and independent actions in the history of American art, he gave up his black-and-white abstractions to focus mainly, once again, on the female figure. He struggled over a single canvas for almost two years, his friends increasingly concerned for his well-being as he continually revised and scraped away the image. He finally set the painting aside in despair. Only the intervention of the influential art historian Meyer Schapiro, who asked to see it during a studio visit, persuaded de Kooning to attack the canvas once again—and conclude that he had finished Woman I (1950-52). Then, in rapid succession, he completed several more Woman paintings.

De Kooning described Woman I as a grinning goddess—“rather like the Mesopotamian idols,” he said, which “always stand up straight, looking to the sky with this smile, like they were just astonished about the forces of nature...not about problems they had with one another.” His goddesses were complicated: at once frightening and hilarious, ancient and contemporary. Some critics likened them to Hollywood bimbos; others thought them the work of a misogynist. The sculptor Isamu Noguchi, a friend of de Kooning’s, recognized their am­bivalence: “I wonder whether he really hates women,” he said. “Perhaps he loves them too much.” Much of the complication comes from the volatile mixture of vulgarity and a refinement in de Kooning’s brushwork. “Beauty,” de Kooning once said, “becomes petulant to me. I like the grotesque. It’s more joyous.”

Not surprisingly, de Kooning doubted that his show of recent work in 1953 would be successful, and the leading art critic of the time, Clement Greenberg, thought de Kooning had taken a wrong turn with the Woman series. Much to de Kooning’s surprise, however, the show was a success, not just among many artists but among a public increasingly eager to embrace American painting.


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