Friday, January 6, 2012

My Date with De Kooning

I always forget that MOMA is open on Mondays! How many Tuesday have found me there, surprised that the galleries are closed!?

 Seated Woman 1, by Stephen Roxborough
Gwyneth Leech's Hypergraphia Installation 
in the Flatiron Prow, 2011

But on a recent Monday, my day off from the Hypergraphia exhibit at the Flatiron, I remembered and made it in time for a member's morning with Willem de Kooning. Vigorous stuff before the first coffee of the day!  I was lucky to land on a docent-led tour and learned a lot.

Channeling De Kooning
Gwyneth Leech's Hypergraphia installation
in the Flatiron Prow, 2011

In the early rooms, a lot of influences are on view: the paintings conjure up Matisse, De Chirico, Picasso, even Hans Holbein in an exquisite pencil drawing of his wife, Elaine de Kooning from 1947.
From there he starts to splinter and jive, the work going in all directions at once, mixing and matching it with figuration and angular abstractions. The black and white paintings knocked my socks off. He could have stayed right there to the end of his days, but not de Kooning.

Willem De Kooning
Untitled, Oil on Board, 1937

Every time he got comfortable with a way of working, he moved on. He never tired of mixing it up between figuration and abstraction, but the how of it kept changing. The history of the female nude in the landscape is joyously reworked in all sorts of ways, for decades.

Willem de Kooning 
Painting, 1948, Oil and enamel on canvas

The docent talked at length about the painting "Woman 1",  about the two years he struggled with it, how it was abandoned, rolled up in the studio until Myer Shapiro told him how important it was, and how it should be exhibited with the other versions of the "Woman" series. In fact, it was shown at the Sidney Janis gallery in 1953 and made everyone mad. Good times. That's when artists know they are onto something.

 Willem de Kooning
Seated Woman, 1940
Oil and charcoal on Masonite

I was especially fascinated by the description of de Kooning's painting  process: the sheets of newspaper adhered at the end of a work day to keep the paint wet overnight, the scraping back, the painting wet into wet, the constant reworking of the same canvas, the collage elements pinned on as reference, then removed at the end, of cut out shapes pasted here and there to try things out.  All add up to deliberation disguised as insouciant aggression. I know how very difficult this immediacy is to achieve, having killed many a promising start to a painting. Once that initial gesture is put down, how hard it is to change it, how hard to keep the painting open and fresh.

Willem de Kooning
Woman 1, 1950-52
Oil on canvas, 6' 3 7/8" x 58"

On the wall at the entrance to the exhibit are six enlarged photos of the different states of "Woman 1". Fascinating! Each is a complete statement in itself, a painting then scraped away and gone forever. I hurried back and forth between these photos and the finished version. In the final painting hanging on the museum wall he breaks through at last from angularity and Picassoesque cubism to something different - raw, fluid, organic, ugly and irresistible. 

Willem de Kooning 
Untitled,  oil on canvas, 1987

I left the de Kooning show with an overwhelming urge to paint. Seven decades of unbridled art making! I want that too.

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