Art review: ‘de Kooning: A Retrospective’ at Museum of Modern Art

Midway through the Museum of Modern Art’s enormous Willem de Kooning exhibition, the curator’s effort at sobriety, balance and perspective breaks down. Lined up on one wall, side by side, like a platoon of drunken and painted harlots, de Kooning’s landmark 1950 “Woman” paintings take over and spread their mayhem in every direction. They leer and squint and mock, and the power of their presence overwhelms the judicious argument that has been carefully superimposed on this methodical retrospective: That de Kooning’s career is best understood as a series of formal problems and solutions, a painterly quest to rethink how abstraction and representation can coexist, how the two-dimensional surface of the canvas can contain both the flat patterning impulse of abstraction and the illusionist three-dimensional space hard won by painters working centuries before de Kooning first picked up a brush.

Once again, the infamous “Woman” paintings — often cited as evidence of de Kooning’s misogyny — dominate the discussion. So much so that the most shocking conclusion one might take from this show, the hit of the New York season since it opened Sept. 18, is that they are somehow self-portraits, vivid self-representations in drag of a painter who may well have felt he was pimping his own talent in as many directions as his women are twisted, pulled, stretched and broken.

They certainly refuse to be politely contained within the formal bookends of this exhibition, which opens with two still lifes that the Dutch-born artist made about 1921, while he was a teenager and a student at a traditional art academy in Rotterdam. The better of them is done in dark crayon and charcoal, a hushed and meticulously rendered image of two jugs and a plate sitting on a table, all three of them like foster children of silence and slow time. The show ends, many rooms later, with de Kooning’s last works, made with the help of assistants while the artist was suffering from progressive mental deterioration. The thick, gently curving lines of these late abstractions feel like out-of-doors works, meditations on landscape and sun, yet their contours, their undulating planes and sense of depth are strangely reminiscent of the artist’s still life some six decades earlier.

That is very much the conclusion that curator John Elderfield would like audiences to draw from this survey of the artist’s career. There is a continuity in the terrifying and protean output of de Kooning, who dominated American painting for decades in the middle of the 20th century. The “Woman” paintings aren’t exceptional but are merely manifestations of the painter’s ongoing efforts to solve formal problems, the most engaging of which was how to create a new kind of pictorial space.

The argument is worked out in detail in the catalogue’s main essay, and it helps make sense of an artist whose career seems superficially like an erratic badminton game between the will to abstraction and the need for some kind of grounding in representational art. De Kooning said that he saw no difference between the two. But while the earliest juvenile works and the late, spare abstractions do suggest a similar sense of how space is depicted, they have an even more profound affinity in their mutual quietness and austerity. Compared with everything else in this show — the electrical energy of the late 1940s black-and-white abstractions that established him as a painter to be reckoned with, the giant and jarring “full arm sweep” landscapes of the late 1950s or the fleshy pink 1960s images of women that look like Chaim Soutine’s paintings of meat — the early and late works feel like a quiet prelude and hushed postlude to a career defined by violent energies of trial and error.

Retrospectives are generally meant to shift public and critical opinion. But this retrospective feels more like a reaffirmation, allowing the viewer to keep on believing what he has thought all along, going all the way back to the prescient judgment of the critic everyone loves to hate, Clement Greenberg, who said in 1948 that de Kooning’s work “lacks a final incisiveness of composition” in part because the artist was struggling so hard to hide or suppress his “draughtsman’s gift.”

And so this show dives deep into the artist’s work only to come back to the surface with the usual conclusions: that he was an artist of great skill, perhaps too much so to be comfortable as an abstract painter in the heroic age of devil-may-care American painting in the late 1940s and ’50s; that he was perhaps too productive and facile, too inclined to live by one of his many oft-inscrutable maxims, “you have to change to stay the same”; that his work was uneven and declined in the end; that his struggle to reconcile figurative and abstract painting yielded more dynamic tension than satisfying resolution.

It also reinforces the sense that he was probably misogynistic, or at least deeply conflicted about women. No matter how resolutely one focuses on de Kooning’s formal accomplishments, the women he painted in the 1950s, and later in lubricious hues of pink, are unnecessarily loud and vulgar, with lurid smiles, enormous breasts, gaping eyes and a carnivalesque sense of sexual power and volatility.

When you finally encounter them, arrayed like images on an iconostasis, the wall of icons that separates the ordinary worshiper from the priestly realms of an Orthodox church, they issue a brazen challenge: Can you get past these paintings? True devotion to de Kooning depends on it.

Those inclined to try will focus on how closely these works relate to more “pure” abstractions made just before, works such as the 1949 “Attic” and the 1950 “Excavation,” which seem full of vaguely human forms, bits of leg or arm or torso, strewn to the very edges of the canvas. De Kooning worked, in many cases, by directly transferring bits and pieces from one work to another, a biopsy of leg, for example, cut from a more representational work allowed to grow in the petri dish of a more-abstract painting. This continuity of purpose and material across his works allows one, perhaps, to think of his 1950 “Woman” paintings not as actual depictions or parodies of women, but as extensions into representational territory of basically abstract concerns.

It is also possible that his women leer at us with the come-hither lips of harlots because no other mask would be sufficiently powerful to bear up to the magnetically colorful and kinetic power of their bodies. After more than 40 years of ever-increasing focus on the purity of abstract form, decades after Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” or Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s distended ladies of the Berlin street, what other sort of smile could a lady wear in a de Kooning painting?

But these arguments let de Kooning off the hook too easily, and they undermine the pure, expressionist force of the “Woman” paintings. They are monstrous figures, cobbled together from psychosexual fixations — in a 1950 “Woman” painting on paper and cardboard, de Kooning simply cut and pasted a toothy lady smile from a magazine — and popular imagery. There’s a reason we remember them so clearly while the other corners of de Kooning’s career remain more obscure, including his wonderful and sometimes-laugh-out-loud sculpture. They are his most memorable and best work, despite the societal violence against women that they seem to echo and perhaps enact.

If you want to tame them, or contain them within a framework that doesn’t condemn de Kooning as misogynistic, the “self portrait” thesis is attractive. As images of the artist himself, emerging from the stresses­ and strains of trying to reconcile irreconcilables, trying to cope with growing fame, struggling to manage his own sexual power over women, they have a kind of pathos. Their anti-woman power vanishes, and one sees not buxom, pushy caricatures, but a terrified man enacting a persona that is growing out of his control.

It’s a reading that injects biography back into a show that wants to focus on the formal. But “de Kooning: A Retrospective” is a difficult exhibition to process without some basic empathy for de Kooning himself, some sense of pity for the talent charging off in all directions, forging but never finishing, blasting a painting of a parkway in New England with so much savage intensity that one can feel the car careening off the road. De Kooning can seem like too many people wrapped up in one, like a cross between the composer Paul Hindemith, who could pump out distinctive works in almost any idiom, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, a sad and self-destructive symptom of the age he chronicled. In the end, you feel as if you’re doing for de Kooning something he never managed to do for himself: stitching the life into a whole, connecting the erratic brilliance of the various de Koonings who seem to jump out from behind the doors of the haunted house of his career.

Ultimately, the retrospective leaves the viewer about where he started: impressed, horrified, alienated and bit melancholy about de Kooning and the century he defined.

De Kooning: A Retrospective

is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through Jan. 9. For more information, go to www.moma.org.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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