Defining de Kooning

It's been the year of Willem de Kooning. In celebration of his 90th birthday last April, two major exhibitions have paid homage to the Dutch-born artist whom many regard as America's greatest living painter. But while the most ambitious tribute may be the traveling retrospective that opened last May at Washington, D.C.'s National Gallery of Art, a more personal, if idiosyncratic, show of his work -- organized by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden -- can be seen at the Museum of Fine Arts.

The National Gallery's hefty exhibit is the one that helped turn de Kooning -- an artist who had one of the greatest runs in 20th-century painting until his career was ended by Alzheimer's disease a decade ago -- into a monument of sorts. But the Hirshhorn show is different. It's not a retrospective, nor is it filled with masterworks. Rather, the artist presented here is a wealthy patron's pal. Not surprisingly, the Hirshhorn exhibition, drawn entirely from its collection of more than 70 de Kooning paintings, drawings and sculptures -- the largest de Kooning selection of any museum in the world -- reveals as much about Joseph Hirshhorn's tastes and buying habits as it does about de Kooning's considerable achievements.

Among the 50 or so pieces on exhibit, there's an oil sketch from 1967 that depicts a nude, high-heeled blond woman ogling the viewer. The image is inscribed, "Anything you want/Anything I say." She was painted as a gift "to Joe" with "love" from "Bill." Indeed, quasi-abstract images of women are in the majority here, giving one the impression that Hirshhorn preferred de Koonings with more than a passing reference to the female form.

In any event, the show asks us to re-examine de Kooning as a painter of voluptuous, heavy-fleshed women, whose faces and forms, gleaned from richly painted abstract surfaces, extend the grand tradition of Rubens and Renoir into the late 20th century. By emphasizing the figurative side of de Kooning's oeuvre, the Hirshhorn exhibit reminds us that his forays into total abstraction were brief, and that he refused to choose between abstraction and representation, or between the art of the past and the art of the present. Significantly, de Kooning's art always remains firmly rooted in life through persistent references to figure and landscape. We see him as a man so in touch with the sources of his pictorial pleasure -- the body of paint and the body of the world -- that he can render us dizzy with exhilaration.

By the time de Kooning had sold his first painting to Joseph Hirshhorn in 1957, Jackson Pollock was already dead and de Kooning was acknowledged as an art star, his place in history virtually guaranteed by his seminal role in the development of abstract expressionism. Although artist and collector had met ten years earlier, they didn't begin to click until Hirshhorn purchased Woman, a small painting on paper from 1951-52. Curiously, his only purchases after 1970 were several of the artist's bronzes, those gouged and squeezed forms that are a direct, three-dimensional correlative of his paintings. Hirshhorn and de Kooning had a lot in common -- both men had been born abroad, neither had finished high school, both began working young, both men had been hardened by the hunger and cold of New York poverty, yet neither was afraid of risks. Hirshhorn was known on several occasions to buy everything in an artist's studio, especially during the lean times of the 1930s and '40s. The Hirshhorn Museum includes large groups of work by Stuart Davis and Arshile Gorky, friends of de Kooning's throughout those years. But Hirshhorn's tastes were also quirky and headstrong. Although he mostly bought work by living artists, he also purchased older things -- bronzes by Daumier and 19th-century portraits by Thomas Eakins -- that anchored his modern art securely in the past.

De Kooning understood this. A resourceful tinkerer with an astonishing, hooking stroke that could express both impulsive energy and the tailing back of reflective thought, de Kooning constantly updated the painter's heritage of formal means by breaking down and rebuilding the structure of pictorial space time and again. When de Kooning arrived in the U.S. as an illegal immigrant in 1926, he was a gifted draftsman who had already achieved a high level of academic training. But he gradually learned to connect that to a modernist language, fusing the line of Ingres and the fragmentation of the antique torso to Gorky, John Graham and, above all, Picasso.

At the same time, de Kooning marveled at Chaim Soutine's sensuous handling of paint. Radical yet classical, pastoral yet urban, de Kooning seems both an abstract field painter and a colleague of swashbuckling 17th-century artist Frans Hals. Poised between tradition and innovation, de Kooning looked back to European sources and forward to the freedom of new American painting. Still, the forms through which de Kooning reached abstraction were always rooted in an earlier kind of abstraction, that of academic drawing. Wandering about the MFA's galleries of de Kooning paintings and drawings, it's obvious why the artist remains one of the most important figures of our culture; his energy, reliable for some five decades; his command of the surface, edge to edge; the sensuous touch that turns images of landscape into nervous meditations on women's bodies. His works display the machinery of drawing itself. His recurving line can take on invigorating speed, charging and skidding through dense paint. Color often seems in danger of being crushed. One keeps expecting the image to fly apart into formal incoherence -- but it never does. For color is at the service of line, guiding the eye through tangles of light and dark, supplying nuance to the exchange of volume and void.

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