deKooning and the MoMA Retrospective

Clement Greenberg, the renowned art critic, said this about Willem deKooning. ” deKooning strives for synthesis. He wants to re-charge advanced painting, which has largely abandonned the illusion of depth and volume, with something of the old power of the sculptural contour…He wants also to make it accomodate bulging, twisting planes like those seen in Tintoretto and Rubens…he wants in the end to recover a distinct image of the human figure, yet without sacrificing anything of abstract paintings’ decorative and physical force. Obviously, this is highly ambitious art…and indeed deKooning’s ambition is perhaps the largest, or at least the most profoundly sophisticated, ever to be seen in a painter domiciled in this country.”

The monumental retrospective of Willem deKooning at MoMA, includes nearly 200 works of art and takes up the entire 6th floor of the museum. It is the kind of tribute and study that is only given to the most significant of major artists. For me, deKooning is not just one of the pioneers of “Abstract Expressionism” (a label, like all pigeonholing labels, he did not appreciate,) but one of the five greatest artists of the 20th century. This grand enterprise is called, “deKooning: A Retrospective” and was brillianaly curated by John Elderfield, the Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture. The show is organized chronologically, and boasts an incredible companion book, with a superb essay by Mr. Elderfiefld as an introduction. It is hands down the best art book of this year, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Throughout his career, in whatever stylistic phase, deKooning painted canvases so lush, they always make my mouth water. The way he applied and mixed paint, his color palette, his expressive, gestural brushwork takes my breath away. Here are some samples from different periods. The range in time is from 1945 to 1984.

Willem deKooning was born in Rotterdam, Holland, in 1904. He lived until 1997, and started his formal art education at the age of twelve, attending the Rottterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques for eight years. He also worked as an assistant to the art director of a department store. Throughout his career, he was considered a master of paint mixing, handling and application. His extensive knowledge of materials and mastery of a wide variety of techniques and draughtsmanship, was widely recognized by his peers. He came from a long line of great Dutch painters, like Rembrandt and Hals who favored a lush use of paint and energetic brushwork. In fact, Robert Rauschenberg, in the video of ” Raushenberg Erases deKooning,” says that he and many others turned to another direction in their art because of their awe of deKooning’s technique and the folly of trying to compete with him. Below are two of his early works that mimic the style of others. The one on the left, done when he was twelve, the other a few years later.


deKooning arrived in America in 1926 as a stowaway aboard an ocean liner. He had tried to leave Holland several times before, but had been caught each time before the ship sailed. He left poor, and was poor for most of his early artistic careeer in New York. In fact, at one point in the 1940′s he could not even afford oil paints in color, and therefore worked briefly, just in black and white. His first solo show in 1948 contained these black and white works exclusively.

The flattened space with shifting planes, twisting contours, and biomorphic shapes that are deKooning’s signature, are all here. Below are paintings by Miro and Gorky, the two Surrealists who, along with Picasso and Cubism were the biggest influences on him. It’s interesting to see how he absorbs and extends their use of space and content into his own unique style.


Below, are examples of how deKooning deals with these issues.

Dekooning flattened out and abstracted Gorky’s pictorial space, which still had remnants of traditional perspective. They shared a love of biomrphic forms, though deKooning’s abstracted shapes almost always had reference to figurative components or real world objects. This ghost of the human form never left even his most abstract work, and combined with his distinctive and luscious color palette, he consistently produced work after work of great beauty. His prolificness and the consistency of his output was truly remarkable.

Through the 1940′s, he and Pollock, among the other ” Abstract Expressionists” were defining a new pictorial space in the history of painting, building on the breakthroughs, primarily of Cezanne and Picasso. Unlike Pollock and the others, however, deKooning, throughout his long career , almost always worked simultaneouly on representational figure pieces along with his abstract work. Below are some of his figurative pieces from the 40′s, the same period as the paintings above.

Also, unlike the rest of the so called “New York School,” deKooning’s development was not a straight evolution to a signature style which he typically repeated. Talking about this, he said that, “to try to make a style is an apology for one’s anxiety.” During the 1940′s, the battleground in painting was all about the march to squeeze out the subjective interior world, flatten the pictorial space, and develop a non-referential vocabulary in a place without the traditional illusion of space and volume. This battle over space and content is nicely illustrated by Elderfield in his essay. He shows the following three paintings, and I will add a fourth. These are repectively by Nicolas Poussin, Picasso, deKooning and Pollock. Both the deKooning and Pollock were done in 1950.


Picasso fractured and recombined the space and forms of classical painting, deKooning, “liquified Cubism,” and Pollock strained out the illusion of recognizable forms or exterior references. Both deKooning and Pollock abandon the hierarchal structure, in favor of an all over surface of equal focus and finish. The painting, above left, called, “Excavation,” is 81 x 104.4 inches. It is the largest easel painting deKooning ever did, and is considered the masterpiece of his early period.

As I mentioned, DeKooning had consistently done representational pieces, usually of women. However his third series, entitled simply, “Woman,” done between 1950 and 1952 caused a semi-scandal in the art world.

The figure to the left, entitled “Woman 1″ is probably the most famous painting deKooning ever did, and certainly, the most infamous. People were scandalized by its ferocious demeanor, large breasts, and huge teeth. ( In another painting, deKooning actually pasted on the canvas, teeth taken from a magazine ad.) There is a stark contrast one feels from the impression of the piece at a distance and that from close up. From afar, these woman look like fierce, amazon guardians of some precious treasure. Approach at your own risk. They are forces of nature, and hardly seductive. Up close, however, one is struck by the elegance of the space, color and brushwork, that surround the form. The figure emerges from, and goes back into, the space around it.. This tension and seamless movement back and forth, is for me, what these paintings are all about. Some critics have talked about the artist’s evident misogyny. I don’t think that is what is going on here. Fear and awe are what come through the strongest to me. deKoonong famously said, ” Flesh was the reason oil painting was invented.”
Here are some other paintings in the various “Woman” series.


Below Dekooning and his wife, Elaine, who was also a painter.

From the mid 50′s through the mid 60′s, deKooning’s focus turned to landscapes, nearly pure abstractions based on both urban and country scenes. This is the “classic deKooning” period, that influenced so many painters that followed. He talked about catching a “glimpse” of something, whether on highway, in the city, or on Long Island, and then started trying to find an abstracted correlative of that. Here are some paintings in that style.


Planes of paint slide, come into focus and go out again.Large, gestural paint strokes create deep spatial effects. deKooning was known for continuously reworking his canvases, always adding layer after layer of information. There is almost a sense of, “dynamic incompletion,” which deKooning courts. This period reflects the essence of ” Action Painting,” as Abstract Expressionism was also called. Here, deKooning seems to fight to establish, to virtually, create space-time anew, every session with the cnavas. ” I paint the way I do because I can keep on putting more and more things in – like drama, pain, anger, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas of space.”

DeKooning, like Pollock, had always been a legendary, heavy drinker. By the early 80′s, Dekooning’s health was failing and the beginnings of dementia had become apparent. His wife came back to him after a period apart, and he now required more assistants in the studio. His work took on a lighter, more simplified quality.


Finally, as in those paintings below, the canvases consisted of just ribbons of paint. Sometimes, he required the help of his assistants while painting. He would also sometimes project images of his old paintings onto canvas and simplify the contour lines himself. Some people find these works to be examples of his diminished capacity. His work was, perhaps, not as consistent in quality as it had always been. I think, however, many of these late works represent a significant display of an unquashable, unconscious reservoir of ingrained habit and technique.

These simple lines and contours floating over the canvas have a feeling of Japanese calligraphy and, profoundly, as John Elderfield called it, “an articulation of vacancy.” These works make me think of Quantum Super Strings, vibrating through multi-dimensional space, creating the universe in all its aspects.


For me, deKooning is a giant. I have never seen anyone create such evocative, sensuous, and just plain, gorgeous, space and form, directly out of paint. With deKooning I always feel that forms arises out of space and is inseparable from it, in a way that’s different than any other painter. Everytime I see a work of his, even in reproduction, I want to jump for joy, and also to run to the studio and paint.

I want to wish everyone a great holiday season, and the happiest of New Years. See you in 2012.

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26 Comments on "deKooning and the MoMA Retrospective"

  1. Helen says:

    What a wonderful article you have written! I cannot think of even one word that could be added to what you have written–it is marvelous! My feelings are similar to yours. It is wonderful seeing all these images here together. You have curated a collection of the best examples of his work. I need to read it all again and look some more at the paintings. Thank you for a de Koonig feast. I love what you wrote about quantum strings. Happy holidays to you!

  2. reading this and seeing his work makes me very inspired also. you wrote this so well david. this makes me miss going to moma and seeing such great works. so that you for sharing this…and thank you for the work you do on this site.

    • David Leeds says:

      Thanks Margarette. It is so important to be able to go to museums to see great work on a regular basis. We all should move to NewYork, Paris, or London, to really have the best opportunity.

  3. Kathy says:

    Interesting that you and Margaret both feel inspired to paint. I feel more like giving up when I see such incredible work. Great post, and captured the essence of an artist who’s work I knew well, but nothing really about him. Thanks!

    • David Leeds says:

      I know that feeling. For me, it works both ways, depending on my mood. More times than not, it inspires me to work. With poetry, I find it slightly different. There are certain poets and poems I read that make me feel like never writing again.

  4. Ulf Skei says:

    Excellent, as always! It made me really wanna get that book on the MoMa exhibition. Might just do that. Wonderful work. Great article. Now some java black.

  5. Sue W. says:

    Wonderful article, Mr. Leeds. I find it interesting that deKooning’s last paintings are so simple, with so much white space. They are also brighter than his earlier work, although I’m sure that’s difficult to really judge if you don’t see them in person.
    I do not agree with his statement “he said that, ‘to try to make a style is an apology for one’s anxiety.’” I think, at least in the early years of painting, you need to “try to make a style” – and it is how you end up with your own style. Hit and miss, hit and miss, ever inching forward to reveal yourself.
    My favorite (Duchamps’ Nude Descending Staircase) reminds me of deKooning in the play of the human figure, but Duchamps seemed to play with depth in this piece. I, personally, am fascinated by depth and motion.
    Again, a lovely piece you’ve written, and I enjoyed learning about this artist. As Helen said, I will need to read and reread this piece to fully appreciate its depth. Pun intended.

    • David Leeds says:

      Thanks Sue, I appreciate your support. And I do agree with you about trying to forge your own style. By copying and reinterpreting our influences, we find our own voice. However, I feel, and I think deKooning meant as well, that you look at people who get to a certain point, often mid-career, that just do the same thing over and over and you can see that they are deeply in a rut of phoning it in. He tried to rediscover the act of creation each time out, over the whole span of his career. Also, you are totally right about the lightness of these later works.

  6. Ludmila Sakowski says:

    Thank you for a wonderful & article. Short but informative and well illustrated. Merry Christmas ans a Happy New year from New Zealand Isles.

  7. metscan says:

    Thank you David for taking us on an interesting tour on the lifework of deKooning.
    Indeed, he accomplished a lot, a real lot.
    Definitely strong, abstract art, but then suddenly, this gentle pictorial woman out of the blue!
    Your review of deKooning was a joy to read, especially as you managed to cover the whole production of the artist.
    Writing a decent comment after reading and seeing something like this, by a total amateur like me, is impossible.
    Yet I want you to know, that you are doing great work here on the blogosphere. Your blog is very much needed.

  8. Thankyou David! a wonderful article, I really apreciate it….made me rediscover this incredible painter….
    I love this blog! I´m allways looking forward to your next article…Please continue next year!
    I wish you , Kathy and your familly all the best!

    • David Leeds says:

      Thanks so much Carmen. I’ve appreciated your friendship and support throughout the year, and wish you the very best for the holidays and New Year. I will certainly keep things going here. It’s been a lot of fun and very rewarding.

  9. Colin Scibetta says:

    this is a great post David — I still remember the visceral reaction I had while sitting in 12th grade AP art history when the image of “Woman 1″ came up on screen — haunted but a little enticed, and not quite sure why. You’ve made me want to check out this MoMa exhibit in…and read more about deKooning.
    I hope you’re well, and would love to see you and Kathy soon!. Much love,
    Colin

  10. A wonderful “essay” on deKooning! I would love to see this exhibition in New York. This is one of about a dozen things happening in NYC right now that I would love to plan a trip around. I learned so much about the artist from this blog post, and I thank you for continuing to enlighten us about some of the great art in the world and conveying your personal joy at its existence. Your feelings are contagious and always make me want to go to a museum or gallery and look at art. Hope you have a Happy New Year!

    • David Leeds says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words, Sunday. As you know, it is a labor of love. The blog has enabled me to reach more people to share my passion for art with than has my own work. In that sense, I find the two efforts complimentary. Coincidently, I was just reading Ciao Domenica, mouth watering in a xmas cookie frenzy, when I heard the ping that was your comment. Looks like you had a wonderful time. All best wishes for the New Year to you and your family.

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Sculptor, painter, poet. Currently living in Los Angeles and Martha's Vineyard