NEW YORK, N.Y.-
The Museum of Modern Art
presents the first major museum exhibition devoted to the full scope of the career of Willem de Kooning (American, b. the Netherlands, 19041997), widely considered to be among the most important and prolific artists of the 20th century, from September 18, 2011, to January 9, 2012. de Kooning: A Retrospective, which will be seen only at MoMA, provides an unparalleled opportunity to study the artist's development over nearly seven decades, beginning with his early academic works, made in Holland before he moved to the United States in 1926, and concluding with his final, sparely abstract paintings of the late 1980s. Bringing together nearly 200 works from public and private collections, the exhibition is the first to occupy the Museum's entire sixth-floor gallery space, totaling approximately 17,000 square feet. The retrospective is organized by John Elderfield, Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art.
Representing nearly every type of work de Kooning made, in both technique and subject matter, this retrospective, which covers the years from 191617 to 1987, includes paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints. Among the works on view are the artist's most famous, landmark paintings-Pink Angels (c. 1945), Excavation (1950), and the celebrated third Woman series (195053)-plus in-depth presentations of all his most important series, ranging from his figurative paintings of the early 1940s to the breakthrough black-and-white compositions of 1948 49, and from the urban abstractions of the mid 1950s to the artist's return to figuration in the 1960s, as well as the large gestural abstractions of the following decade. Also included is de Kooning's famous yet rarely seen theatrical backdrop, the 17-foot-square Labyrinth (1946).
John Elderfield states: "The importance of Willem de Kooning as one of the very foremost artists of the New York School is widely accepted, as is his revolutionary importance to modern art as a whole. Far less well understood is what his artistic career actually comprised in its almost seven decades of development. The exhibition demonstrates how de Kooning never followed any single, narrowly defined path, repudiating the modernist view of art as developing towards an increasingly refined, allover abstraction to find continuity in continual change."
The exhibition follows de Kooning's career chronologically in seven galleries. It begins with two early academic works made in his native Holland, Still Life (1916/17) and Still Life (Bowl, Pitcher and Jug) (c. 1921). Following these early works is a survey of paintings he made in New York from around 1930 to 1945, ranging from early abstractions, such as Untitled (The Cow Jumps Over the Moon) (193738), to the first series of Woman paintings (1940-46). Both the figure paintings and the abstractions were created through a lengthy revisionary process in which charcoal drawing and oil color were applied alternatively, and changes were allowed to show. Inspired by Arshile Gorky's canvases, Old Master portraits, and the work of Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, and Pablo Picasso, he fashioned an individual style in which limbs in the figure paintings resemble biomorphic shapes in the abstractions; forms in the abstractions resemble torsos and breasts; and bold, geometric shapes anchor both kinds of paintings. By the mid 1940s, with Pink Lady (c. 1944) and Pink Angels (c. 1945), de Kooning had become, at 40 years of age, a major artist.
De Kooning's breakthrough years (194549) saw the artist working simultaneously in abstract and representational styles. He painted a new series of usually small and fantastic interiors and exteriors, populated by abstracted figures and anatomical fragments as well as elements of architecture, as seen in Fire Island (c. 1946) and Judgment Day (1946), the latter the inspiration for the 17-foot-square dance-performance backdrop on view outside the exhibition. Also important in this section are his black-and-white paintings of 194749, which established his reputation and enormous influence as an Abstract Expressionist. One of these works, titled Painting (1948), was the first of his pieces to enter any museum collection, with MoMA acquiring it that same year.
In the summer of 1948, while teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, he worked primarily on one small painting, Asheville (1948), which reintroduced color and separable shapes into the fluid, allover compositional approach of his recent black-and-white paintings. Back in New York, he made his second series of Woman paintings (194850), comprising three large canvases and some smaller works, all more violent and grotesque than those in the first series. At the same time, he produced a sequence of ambitious abstract paintings that culminated in Excavation (1950), the largest easel painting he would ever make.
The notorious third Woman series (195053) began with Woman I (195052). Created with the aid of numerous works on paper, this canvas marked the most important artistic change of his career: freeing him from the exacting Cubist marquetry of his preceding works, it introduced a far more painterly and improvisational approach. A year and a half after beginning Woman I, de Kooning began three other, related canvases-two of which would be finished before Woman I-and then two more. When all six were first exhibited, in the spring of 1953, their ferocious intensity created a sensation, opening the artist to charges of misogyny, on the one hand, and of forsaking abstraction, and therefore the avant-garde, on the other. The celebrated series of abstract landscapes that followed through the remainder of the 1950s includes the so-called "abstract parkway landscape" paintings, including Park Rosenberg (1957) and Merritt Parkway (1959).
De Kooning's move to Springs, on the east end of Long Island, New York, in the 1960s and the influence of his new seaside environment can be seen in small, luminous paintings of women, such as Clam Diggers (1963). The works that followed were more expressionistic and erotic, including Woman in a Rowboat (1964) and the 196466 "door" series, comprising paintings and drawings of women made on actual doors or door-sized sheets of vellum. In 1969, de Kooning's interests turned to sculpture. He had never previously sculpted, but a chance meeting in Rome with the sculptor Herzl Emanuel, an old friend, led him to make a group of small clay figures cast in bronze, a selection of which is included in the exhibition.
In the early 1970s, de Kooning produced 20 black-and-white lithographs, some very large-loosely brushed, abstract and quasi-figurative compositions that courted accidents in the printing process for a wide variety of painterly effects. He also returned to sculpture, now working in wetter, more slippery clay to make male and female figures, some almost life-size andseemingly composed less of volumes than of thickened surfaces of skin and sinew, as seen in Seated Woman on a Bench (1972). In 1975, the artist went back to painting, and through 1977 created an ambitious series of what one critic called "landscapes of the body"-again fusing abstraction, landscape, and the female figure. De Kooning began these works by drawing figural forms, which he gradually submerged beneath layers of thick, liquid-like paint, scraped off daily and reapplied, often for weeks at a time. Wrinkled and puckered areas of the surface evoke the effects of light on landscape, and occasional image fragments refer to parts of the body. Examples of these works include ...Whose Name Was Writ in Water (1975) and Screams of Children Come from Seagulls (1975). De Kooning ended that series in 1978 and by 1980 had found a new direction: works composed of energetic patterns of broad ribbons of paint.
In 1981, de Kooning set aside the heavy painterliness of his preceding canvases to work on smooth surfaces glazed with bright, transparent colors, across which fragments of ribbons and filaments of drawing dart and swerve, as in Pirate (Untitled II) (1981) and Untitled III (1981). Then, in 1983, a more radical change occurred: the paintings became sparer, created from large areas of varied whites across which run narrow bands and thin, mobile lines shaping complex spaces and an elusive figuration, as seen in Untitled XIX (1983). These pointed the way towards the even more stripped-down, crisply graphic compositions of 198485, among them Rider (Untitled VII) (1985).
By this time, de Kooning's health had deteriorated, and he would increasingly suffer from dementia. However, he remained alert and active in the studio, where he drastically simplified his practices, eliminating extensive revision to make what are effectively drawn paintings in a limited color range that nonetheless evoke constantly changing, swelling and contracting spaces. Beginning in 1985 and more consistently in 198687, he complicated his compositions yet again to produce paintings that evoke landscapes with wind-blown foliage (Untitled VI, 1986) and swaying figures (The Cat's Meow, 1987). By the end of 1987, the paintings had changed once more, but the artist's health had greatly faded and with it, his concentration and production, which slowed to a halt in 1990.