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. Ida says:

    David and Kathy….Wishing you a Happy Hanukkah enjoy your family meal. Ida

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  3. Tabitha says:

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  4. Brandi says:

    I actually found this more eninatrietng than James Joyce.

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