Post from the Grey Art Gallery Blog

8 Nov

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Visiting De Kooning: A Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art

Willem de Kooning, Woman I, 1950-52. Oil on canvas, 6 ft. 3 7/8 in. x 58 in. The Museum of Modern Art, New York

I am not exaggerating when I write that I was waiting all summer to see MoMA’s De Kooning: a Retrospective. I was literally counting down until the show opened on September 16. The massive exhibition—which fills the museum’s entire sixth floor gallery space with over 200 works by the artist and is on view until January 9, 2012—is well worth the wait. I feel that the only way to express my enthusiasm for the show is to tell you that if you haven’t seen it yet, you should stop what you’re doing, turn off your computer and go to MoMA right now…or at least as soon as you’ve finished reading this post.

I have to confess—maybe I’m a little biased since I love de Kooning’s oeuvre so much. I relish everything he made, from the black-and-white works of the late 1940’s, to the abstracted landscapes in pastels, and even to his snarling Women. The first time I saw Woman I at MoMA, I stood in front of it for about twenty-five minutes, completely transfixed. But biases (and obsessions) aside, the breadth of this informative retrospective, curated by the museum’s own John Elderfield, is undeniable. The exhibition spans over eighty years of de Kooning’s career, beginning with early still-lifes and ending with his pared down abstraction of the ’80s and ’90s. Reportedly the most expensive exhibition in MoMA’s history, it includes around four billion dollars worth of art.

But perhaps this is a small price to pay for such a comprehensive retrospective. The exhibition displays many of the artist’s most important and seminal works. During my visit, every time I turned a corner, I’d see another de Kooning masterpiece staring me in the face. When I was worried I wouldn’t see 1963’s Clam Diggers, there it was. When I felt concerned that some of de Kooning’s fluid charcoal sketches weren’t included, there they were. Even his later sculpture, which was on view at the Pace Gallery this summer as part of Willem de Kooning, The Figure: Movement and Gesture, has a place in the show. The exhibition successfully juxtaposes the artist’s best-known works with others that may be less familiar to you. In fact, one of my favorite works on display was one I’d never seen before: a backdrop de Kooning completed for “Labyrinth,” a performance by Marie Marchowsky, who was involved with Martha Graham’s dance company. De Kooning based the huge canvas backdrop, which measures roughly 15 x 17 feet, on his painting of the same year, Judgment Day (1946). De Kooning renders his biomorphic shapes in bright chartreuse, neon orange, and fleshy pink. They seem to reside on the wall of the gallery space like enormous, abstracted versions of the fantastical creatures found in Hieronymous Bosch’s visions of hell. This work stayed with me after I left the museum even though it wasn’t one of the de Koonings I was counting down to see all summer.

Willem de Kooning, Backdrop for “Labyrinth,” 1946. Calcimine and charcoal on canvas, 15 ft. 2 in. x 17 ft. 6 in. The Allan Stone Collection

The inclusion of such a wide range of de Kooning’s work makes possible what the retrospective aims to do—that is, to frame de Kooning as a modern master who continually transformed and perfected his craft through a series of different periods. To say the exhibition pays homage to the Dutch artist is an understatement. If this isn’t evident through the sheer size of the show, it becomes clearer in the gift shop—where de Kooning’s quips and quotes are blazoned onto mugs, notebooks, and sketchpads. (One notebook reads, “Not even for a million dollars would I paint a tree” while a mug proclaims, “In art one idea is as good as another.”) And although presenting de Kooning as an immensely influential figure in Abstract Expressionism and American art is nothing new, this exhibition does so in a way that sheds light on the artist’s entire body of work—not just his famous Woman paintings or the renowned Excavation (1950), which it deems the masterpiece of his early career. The show gives museum visitors the opportunity to gain an inclusive understanding of the important path de Kooning’s career took—and, of course, to purchase their fair share of memorabilia when they’re done.

— Written by Carolyn F. Keogh, Undergraduate Intern, Grey Art Gallery


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