We are at a moment in art when “isms” are dead, when instinct trumps theory, when abstraction and figuration live happily together, when variety is better than a single style, and when political incorrectness rules.
We are at the perfect moment, that is, to revisit Willem de Kooning, the great American painter who died in 1997, at 92, and whose work pre-figured our current trends. On Sept. 18, the Museum of Modern Art in New York is launching the first all-media de Kooning retrospective. All 17,000 square feet of the museum’s sixth floor will be devoted to it.
De Kooning is one of our most famous artists. We’ve heard about his drinking and womanizing. Since 1974, we’ve noted his pictures’ record prices. And we’ve read plenty on his decline into dementia in the 1980s, and the paintings he kept making despite it. But we still don’t know what to do with his art. “The range of talent and innovation in de Kooning is similar to that of Cézanne,” said Richard Shiff, a great Cézanne scholar who is publishing a new book on de Kooning. John Elderfield, the MoMA show’s curator, writes that his painter embraces “difficulty, resistance, and ambiguity.”
De Kooning is often billed more simply than that, as Jackson Pollock’s chief rival in abstract expressionism, although de Kooning himself disliked the “-ism.” His art may have plenty of expression in it, but de Kooning’s painterly outpourings, rather than spilling from his soul, are as carefully constructed as any Old Master picture.
And then there’s the problem of the “abstract” part of abstract expressionism. In 1948, de Kooning splashed onto the New York scene with Pollock-y abstracts in black and white. But within three years he’d made his Woman paintings, in which angry old crones emerge as a mess of pink and orange paint. These pictures brought credible charges of misogyny—and almost-as-credible defenses against them—and will still be debated at MoMA.
Shiff says that de Kooning’s variety, and an intense intelligence that was about things and sights rather than words and thoughts, continues to challenge. For Shiff, the painter was all about sensory experiments that start by looking out at the world and then see how many directions they can go in. “Style is a fraud,” de Kooning once wrote. In art, he said, “one idea is as good as another.”
If you hit it big with a show of black-and-white abstraction, how could you not follow that up with pink women? If you’re recognized as a great painter, how could you not, in your late 60s, try sculpture? And if you’ve always been known for your Dionysian art, how could you not, as the end approaches, switch to imagery that registers as slow ocean wakes or the paths of seniors waltzing?