Defining de Kooning

At their best, de Kooning's "Women" convey a sense of imminent metamorphosis. The iconic Woman, Sag Harbor (1964) is all aggressive combativeness: her feisty, leering grin; the flesh scored with wound-like openings rendered in juicy pinks and bloody scarlets; a ground composed of a welter of painted and splattered earth tones merging into a green beige ambiance. In the hilarious Lobster Woman (1965), an oil on tracing paper, a smeary red line widens into a shape. What began as a gesture marking the edge of a form is now a form in its own right. De Kooning once again confounds outside with inside, the external means of definition with the inward presence of the thing defined. In this case, he effortlessly whipped up a creature worthy of any '90s tabloid.

For the most part, however, the small lyrical paintings and drawings from the '60s lack de Kooning's characteristic frenzied brushwork. The paint is loose and oily, the articulation of bodies feels flabby, with strokes sliding across the candied surface and encountering little resistance. Nonetheless, Hirshhorn liked them, and it was during the years of their creation that he was especially close to de Kooning, even subsidizing the construction of the artist's studio in East Hampton.

If anything, the collection on view at the MFA seems to propose that the movement of de Kooning's talent was ebb-and-flow -- careful picking yields important work throughout the various periods in his art. Clearly, Hirshhorn didn't buy only the peaks. Still, he managed to get beyond the mythic persona in putting together a portrait of the artist as friend. In doing so, he provided as good an argument as we're likely to get that individuality is an authentic, lived condition -- not just ideological jargon.

"Willem de Kooning from the Hirshhorn Museum Collection" will show through May 28 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet, 526-1361.

De Kooning
As a painter, de Kooning has always been obsessed with the bodies of women.

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