Still Unearthing Discoveries in de Kooning’s Brush Strokes
By CAROL VOGEL
Published: September 13, 2011
The first thing visitors will see at the entrance to the Museum of Modern Art’s sprawling Willem de Kooning retrospective, which opens on Sunday, is a wall of photographs that chronicle six stages in the creation of the legendary painting “Woman I” (1950-52). John Elderfield, MoMA’s chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture, said he chose these images as a starting point because they illustrate “that de Kooning was an artist about process.”
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For the last six years Mr. Elderfield has immersed himself in the work of de Kooning, who helped define the shape of postwar American art. The artist, who died in 1997, was especially known for his large and luscious canvases of riotous brush strokes and curving forms, and for his preoccupation with the female figure, a subject he returned to in different guises throughout his career.
Mr. Elderfield has a big story to tell. The exhibition includes some 200 works made over nearly seven decades — paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures — and occupies the museum’s entire 17,000-square-foot sixth floor, a first for an exhibition since MoMA reopened after its expansion in 2004.
It is also the first comprehensive look at de Kooning’s work in nearly 30 years (The Whitney Museum of American Art held the last thorough retrospective in 1983.)
“This is an artist people want to know of,” Mr. Elderfield said, adding that he believed de Kooning would be “rediscovered by a new generation.”
Because the price of postwar art has escalated so drastically over the last few years, with major works by de Kooning fetching astronomical prices, the show, which consists primarily of loans, is costing MoMA greatly. While the museum will not give an exact figure, experts familiar with the retrospective say it includes more than $4 billion worth of art: an enormously costly group of works to transport and insure, making it perhaps the most expensive exhibition in the institution’s history.
Delving into the career of a master like de Kooning would seem unlikely to yield discoveries, given that his story has been told so many times, including in a biography that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005: his arrival in New York from his native Netherlands as a stowaway in 1926; his hard-drinking life in cold-water lofts; his first one-man show at 44; and his eventual fame as the artist who epitomized the improvisational bravura of Abstract Expressionism. (De Kooning’s waning years are well known too: in the 1980s he was given a diagnosis of dementia, and in 1989 he was declared incompetent by his lawyer and his daughter, Lisa.)
But Mr. Elderfield approached his subject as if on an art historical treasure hunt. As he started working on the exhibition, one clue led to another and another, until he was able to piece together new insights from technical studies, photographs, popular postwar films and even magazine clips about movie stars of the day.
“He’s someone whose art is hard to get your hands around,” said Mr. Elderfield, standing in the middle of the exhibition’s galleries on a recent morning as the last few paintings were being hung. “He was always changing. When his colleagues — Pollock, Newman and Rothko — found a signature style, they stuck with it. When de Kooning found his signature style, he would abandon it and struggle to discover the next one.”
Some periods of his work are better known than others. For example, many de Kooning canvases from the 1940s — quasi-abstract paintings that are darker than much of what he’d done before and have an almost grotesque quality — have rarely been exhibited.
The paradox is that those paintings represent the era when, Mr. Elderfield said, “de Kooning becomes de Kooning.” Among the works from that decade are a group of canvases called “Secretary,” “The Secretary’s Day” and “Stenographer,” which reflect “that postwar era when women entered the workforce,” as Mr. Elderfield put it.
Curious about the artist’s inspiration for these compositions — paintings and drawings dominated by shapes that look strangely like Casper the Friendly Ghost (who had his film premiere in 1945, Mr. Elderfield learned), combined with odd, amoebic figures; abstracted body parts; and grinning faces — Mr. Elderfield said he “turned to the wonders of Google.” That’s where he discovered several lessons in secretarial efficiency put out by Coronet Instructional Films, which featured calendar pads similar to those in many of de Kooning’s paintings.
Google was also where Mr. Elderfield found books from that era devoted to teaching stenography; many of de Kooning’s black-and-white canvases from that decade, he came to believe, were inspired by the hooks and curves of the symbols found in shorthand.
Lauren Mahony, the show’s curatorial assistant, made discoveries too. To get a feeling for what New York looked like in the 1940s and ’50s, she began scouring old Life magazines, and happened on an article titled “Movie Bad Girls” that included a picture of the Italian actress Silvana Mangano, who starred as a rice field worker in the 1949 movie “Bitter Rice.”
“De Kooning had said he was influenced by ‘Bitter Rice’ when he painted ‘Excavation,’ ” Ms. Mahony said of his seminal painting from 1950, which is on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago. “But he could never have seen the film, because it was only released in the United States after he’d finished ‘Excavation.’ ”
Curiously, the same issue of Life has an article about the excavation of New York City subway stations, suggesting to Ms. Mahony and Mr. Elderfield that de Kooning had been influenced by that particular issue of the magazine, rather than directly by the movie.
Perhaps Mr. Elderfield’s biggest revelation concerns de Kooning’s third series of “Women” paintings, this one from the ’50s. During the show’s planning, David White, Robert Rauschenberg’s official curator, told him of albums filled with photographs that Rauschenberg had taken of de Kooning’s Manhattan studio. Together these images made clear that “Woman I,” “Woman II” and “Woman III” were not completed in that order, as had long been believed.
Other photographs tell different stories. In the 1980s, when de Kooning was living and working on the East End of Long Island, his assistants would take photographs of the studio and the works in progress almost daily. By this time he was suffering from dementia.
“People later talked about how de Kooning was not in control of what he was doing, but it was clear from these photographs that he was,” Mr. Elderfield said. “The kind of continuous revision that happened to these pictures has very much de Kooning’s signature to it.”
These late, often haunting canvases — sparer than the sensual and colorfully theatrical work he created when he was at the height of his powers — have often been debated, because it is hard to know how much he painted himself and how much was done by studio assistants.
“When you think of artists today like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, who have armies of assistants virtually creating their work, does it really matter?” Mr. Elderfield said. “I don’t think it does. In de Kooning’s case, we know his hand is in all his work.”