de Kooning: A Retrospective Preview

Tuesday, September 13th was my favorite day of Spring 2012 New York Fashion Week.  I started the morning at the first runway show ever for Tory Burch.  It was full of fun prints and pops of color.  Next up was J.Crew's first presentation at the tents which was also full of great shades for spring.  Afterward, I ran down to the Museum of Modern Art for the preview of the new Willem de Kooning exhibition.  It too was full of amazing colors but also bold brushstrokes, bronze sculptures and even a few drawings.  The amazing collection of almost 200 works spans over seven decades of the career of de Kooning.  You may think that I've posted the entire exhibition but I assure you that there is plenty more to see including his early work when his teens and the very last paintings made in the late 1980's when his health was in decline.  He died in 1997.

I stayed to listen to a conversation between the Director of the Museum of Modern Art, Glenn Lowry, and the Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture, John Elderfield.  If you have a chance to attend a lecture or hear them speak during the duration of the de Kooning exhibition, I highly recommend that you attend.  I learned so much about not only Willem de Kooning but how much work goes into a show of this magnitude.  John Elderfield said he hoped to have an exhbition like this for years and called it a "great adventure." It involved a lot of persuasive talking and traveling to borrow paintings, sculptures, and works on paper from over 100 lenders.

Willem de Kooning was born in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, in 1904 and was trained as a decorative artist. When he came to the United States in 1926, he worked as a commercial artist among other jobs.  He would be influenced by many artists who also became friends including Arshile Gorky with whom he shared a studio.  He reminds me of Picasso in the sense that he was a gifted artist from an early age.  One of the first works in the show is a Still Life from 1916/17 that was painted when he was just 12 years old.  They both seemed to set out to challenge themselves to new styles and de Kooning as we know became a master at Abstract Expressionism.  Unlike most of the other abstract artists, he kept the figure in many his works as we see in his series of Women paintings from the 1950's. These are probably the paintings that most people are familiar with but my favorites are the true abstract paintings from the late 1950's and early 1960's.

As is the case with many creative people, de Kooning had issues with alcohol and it was his estranged wife Elaine who helped him over it in 1980.  The thalo green paintings that are also a favorite of mine were some of the paintings he created right after. In the 1980's, his work moved to more flat ribbon forms and a striped down style. Sadly, he was declared in competent in 1989 due to dementia.  There has been some controversy over the paintings created in later years.  Some have suggested that assistants helped with them. John Elderfield has studied them extensively and believes that an artist of his level would still be capable of producing art at that level even with a disability in another part of his life. 

One interesting question that was asked at the end of the conversation was "How Dutch a painter do you consider de Kooning to be?"  John Elderfield said that the artist kept his accent his entire life and the experience of growing up near water was one of the reasons that he moved to Long Island in the 1960's. Even though he moved to International Modernism, he retained many of the traditions that grew up with as a Dutch painter.

de Kooning: A Retrospective will be on view until January 9, 2012 but I would definitely suggest seeing it soon.  It would be a perfect activity for the rainy weekend. 

Photos by Heather Clawson for Habitually Chic

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