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.

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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.  

Yet there's the feeling that de Kooning is constantly fighting for his paintings, from excess to overload and beyond. One part of him wants to follow lucidity and order, to "get it right"; the other part is compelled to "mess it up." Out of this tension comes a synthesis, an uneasy, pulsing pictorial presence oscillating between confidence and doubt. From the outset, de Kooning chipped away at his own good intentions, pushing painting to a place that even he found difficult to enter.

The MFA exhibition is divided into early and late periods -- from the '30s to the early '60s when de Kooning worked in Manhattan, and from 1963 on, when he became an American citizen and moved permanently to a studio in the village of Spring in Long Island's East Hamptons. It begins with Seated Man (1939) and Queen of Hearts (1943-46), early works that attempt to merge seemingly irreconcilable sources from antiquity and the modern world. The show ends up with two large abstractions from the '80s acquired by the Hirshhorn Museum after Joseph Hirshhorn's death.

In these abstractions, de Kooning gave his curvy line a sharpness. The famous impasto and encrustations have been rhythmically swept away in favor of a less turbulent execution and a more penetrable surface. A blue of poured lapidus and dandelion yellow seems to luxuriate in chromatic freshness and clarity. Curves glide over the surface, locking into one another so that gesture and framework are one. In between, however, de Kooning worked concurrently on abstract and figurative paintings. In biomorphic abstractions, he filled imaginary interior spaces with cartoon-like creatures and fragmentary shapes.

For a series of black-and-white abstractions, he used an unorthodox mixture of traditional oil and enamel house paint to create fluid abstract imagery. In Zurich (1947), de Kooning combined seemingly nonsensical letters and words in a calligraphic composition that evokes the street signs and cracked pavement of his urban surroundings. The result is a painting of striking scale and inventive dislocations, in which careening strokes ricochet like a pinball game.

De Kooning loved battling control. He would make drawings with his left hand, instead of his usual right; he'd sketch while half looking at TV, or with his eyes closed. But then again, de Kooning never set purity as a goal. Fragments of pop culture -- movies, billboards, the detritus of the American desire industry -- were always sailing into his images and sticking there, as one critic noted, "like bugs on a windshield." Smiles from Camel ads, shoulders from Ingres; part archaic Ishtar, part Amsterdam hooker and part Marilyn -- high and low are everywhere.

Even so, de Kooning's violently expressionistic drawings and paintings of women were regarded by some as a betrayal of the abstract expressionist creed. In Woman (1953), the overlapped faces offer the painterly equivalent of a double exposure. Such visual puns, created in a spirit of caricature, resulted from de Kooning's theory of intimate proportions. He believed that at close range anatomical parts appear interchangeable. Through such subversive devices, de Kooning equated archaic fertility idols and idealized images of Western art with the less-exalted imagery of billboards and pin-up models.

As a painter, de Kooning has always been obsessed with the bodies of women, quoting them in whole and in detail, with a unique mingling of distance, intimacy, lust, humor and spite. To this day, the images remain disturbing and among the most difficult pictures in the American canon to fix with a settled meaning. Emerging from an indeterminate space in which figure and ground never seem fully distinct, they are timeless women, but also of the '50s. Their eyes stare directly at the viewer, knees and busts jut out, lips part in a frightening toothy grin. Did de Kooning have a difficult mother? Was he a misogynist? Do these women represent his feminine side? Does their ferocity symbolize his own liberation from artistic and social norms? De Kooning always insisted that the pictures were "funny," the sort of funny that the existential temper of the time honored as a profound response to the absurdity of existence. At any rate, the "Women" paintings brought to art a fresh and unrepentant American vulgarity while still reflecting de Kooning's training in the high European tradition.  

Obviously, Joseph Hirshhorn was seldom horrified by vulgarity -- more than half of his de Koonings depict those buxom women, even if a large number of them are unexceptional. Some of the pink images of nudes splayed in landscapes are excessively lush and the drawing is submerged in weak, wambling brush strokes.

Most outstanding, however, is Two Women in the Country (1954), in which the frontally posed nudes are suspended like marionettes from the top of the canvas. Whereas de Kooning described their anatomy in slashes of black paint and charcoal line, he highlighted the pink flesh-tones of their bodies with bright green. Moreover, through the repetition of forms such as the curve of their breasts and dark circles of their navels, de Kooning created visual rhymes and an interaction between the otherwise isolated figures.

As often as not, de Kooning took his figures flesh and all, mashing them into a seething mass of humanity. "Flesh was the reason oil painting was invented," he once wrote. De Kooning doesn't just paint for the sake of painting: he wanted to plumb female flesh, leave his painterly fingerprints in it, work the body over, unmask her, rip the skin off, even as he fears her, desires her. For de Kooning, flesh is the site of an erotic matrix -- hot, clinging wet. By inviting the viewer to enter the spaces of the body, as if entering the spaces of a landscape, he offers the possibility of merger with something enveloping and all-encompassing.

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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