de Kooning: A Retrospective (part 1)


The Museum of Modern Art

Through January 9, 2012


By Jenna Weiss

This first of three reflections addresses the overall scope of the show.


de Kooning: A Retrospective, organized by John Elderfield, Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, is a big show. It spans the entire sixth floor of the museum, where it begins not with the usual entrance point on the left, but immediately as you walk off the escalator, in a gallery often kept separate for smaller exhibitions. This changes the rhythm of the show from every other major survey that has taken place in those galleries since the museum’s renovation. It also challenges the convention of reading a work from left to right- the dominant mode in western culture. This concern is also internal to de Kooning’s paintings to some degree, whose brush strokes can represent language, evoke symbols, or mimic calligraphy.


What I admire most as I start to peel away the trappings of the world around me and dive into the world of the paintings is the way de Kooning does not merely flirt with the notion of radicality. He lets go of the tethers to pictorial illusion in an immediate way, as compared to painters like Gorky or Miró. Both artists have recently been the subject of large-scale retrospectives at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and MoMA respectively, which is why this comparison comes to mind. De Kooning’s radical jumping-in does not mean an absence of looking, however. In the first room of the exhibition alone, which includes works from up to about 1948, there is still abundant evidence of visual knowledge in the work that is only gained by observation. Shadow and light, the redrawing of edges that slip between figure and space—these concerns are not just setting up a stage for action, but capturing the action in the space of a painting. He is in control of the direction of this investigation, so he complicates the matter and the edge relationships multiply, leaving more room for variation and invention. In Pink Angels (1945) he pulls these practices apart – as if he is putting the body in a blender and still finding the relationship of parts to the whole and the whole to the space.


Though looking and reasserting the presence of one form next to another are paramount in de Kooning’s paintings, color dominates the visual field. Saturated pinks and turquoises rule the roost in his portraits from the early to mid 1940’s, and after seeing the entirety of this show you really understand why color had to leave his work for a time. There is no hesitation—only a forward momentum to isolate the struggles of composition, which in the black and white works become the closest thing to subject matter. This also coincides with forms being pushed ever closer to the picture plane and with growing assertiveness. By the time I was in the room with the large abstraction, Excavation (1950)—one of the many climaxes of the show— I needed to take advantage of the bench and sit down. To me, this painting and the surrounding works bring to mind the medieval notion of horror vacui, literally a fear of empty space, which can be found in the overcrowding of figures in paintings from this era, and the tympanum reliefs of a gothic cathedral, an association also due to the muted tones of beige and crackling white.


Sitting in front of Excavation, I think about the inherent relationship between the size of a work, the time that it takes to make, and how long a viewer will spend with it. To my eyes, there are more sweet and successful paintings in this room alone to spend time with, but I think it is a worthwhile question for a later visit.


Color has been on hold for this brief moment, but when it comes back, it comes back with a purpose. This occurs in the Women series that de Kooning is best known for, as well as in the large brushy landscape evocations on the opposite gallery wall. As you approach a saturation point looking at the work, the paintings seem to reach a place where the paint itself can no longer hold form. The once angular or apportioned segments of bodies, chairs, and atmosphere have become slippery squiggles; the bodies are now the accumulated stacking of these ribbons. It is as if the subjects were being painted in a funhouse mirror, and the act of looking itself has become unfixed, though not non-existent.



Jenna Weiss is a painter working between New York and Philadelphia. She holds an MFA from Tyler School of Art where she has also taught for the Department of Painting, Drawing and Sculpture.