Thursday, October 20, 2011

Some Thoughts about MoMA’s de Kooning Exhibition

By Charles Kessler

Willem de Kooning, Woman II, 1950-52, 76" x 58", oil on canvas, (MoMA)
I hope this exhibition puts an end to the myth that de Kooning's "Woman" paintings are misogynistic. Most of de Kooning's women, at least most of the ones I’ve seen, are powerful, sexually aggressive, and often outrageously funny. Perhaps people continue to have this misconception today because the most famous de Kooning painting, MoMA’s Woman II (above), might possibly be interpreted as misogynistic. But that painting is not typical. Compare it with this painting, for example:

Willem de Kooning, Woman with Bicycle, 1952-53, oil on canvas, 77" x 49" (Whitney Museum of Art).
(Sebastian Smee reported in his review of the show, that de Kooning told his brother-in-law, Conrad Fried, about seeing prostitutes in Amsterdam flashing their breasts for a fraction of a second (as advertising I assume). I think that comment is particularly relevant to this painting.)
Like Picasso, de Kooning uses color mainly to distinguish one shape (or brushstroke) from another rather than for what it does best: glow, resonate, breathe and interact with other colors. It’s not until the early sixties, with paintings like Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point (below), that he really deals with color, and then not again consistently until twenty years later, when he abandoned what he called “fitting in” — the placement of the parts of a painting so they interweave across the surface in an all-over manner (Easter Monday, 1955-56 - further below, for example). I believe this was precipitated, or at least reinforced, by de Kooning's dislike of Picasso’s late work which he saw in the fall of 1980 at the Picasso retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Also at that time, Elderfield reports in the de Kooning catalog (p.450), “He told Judith Wolfe that he had become interested in Matisse because that artist’s work didn’t have the ‘fitting’ quality of Cezanne and the Cubists.”

Willem de Kooning, Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point, 1963, oil on canvas 80 x 70 inches (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam).
There are some surprising congruences with de Kooning’s work, especially his late work. His The Cat’s Meow (owned by Jasper Johns, BTW) reminds me of East Village Graffiti art -- people like Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, or maybe even Carroll Dunham or Elizabeth Murray’s late work.
The Cat's Meow, 1987, oil on canvas, 88 x 77 inches.
 and there's this congruence:

Just saying.
Some of de Kooning’s work has so much going on and is so complex, they’re like nature itself. Check this out for example:
Willem de Kooning, Easter Monday, 1955-56, oil and newspaper transfer on canvas, 8' x 6'2" (Met).
Finally, on an entirely unrelated matter, what's with the dust bunnies all over MoMA? Has anyone else noticed? Don’t they ever vacuum? Weird.
Window overlooking Brazilian artist Carlito Carvalhosa, Sum of Days, MoMA installation, 2011.

My next post: de Kooning and the figure/ground dilemma.


Maxine Yalovitz-Blankenship said...

Love this ... and most Left Bank Blog.

Charles Kessler said...

Thanks. Please comment about things you disagree with too.