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William deKooning at MoMA

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William deKooning and women belong together like ice cream and hot fudge sauce.

In fact, deKooning came to the U.S. in 1926 (stowing away on a steamer) not for economic or political reasons but because, according to John Elderfield, Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA, who conceived this blockbuster show six years ago, he saw a photograph in the Netherlands of “long-legged American women” and was irresistibly drawn to see these splendid creatures for himself. A lifelong womanizer, he married fellow artist, Elaine (Fried) deKooning who, long after their divorce, helped him get back on track as a painter following a late-life bout of depression and alcoholism.

Throughout deKooning’s long, prolific artistic life (he died in 1997), as these 200 works from 100 different sources amply illustrate, the curvaceous form of women – or parts of women – are everywhere, even in his most abstract paintings. As he once said, “Flesh was the reason oil painting was invented.”

Which is not to say that his obsession always produced lovable or delicious renderings of the female form, a la Renoir. Far from it. He was perfectly capable of conveying the delicacy and beauty of women, but his best-known series of five paintings on this subject, “Woman I through V” (only 2 of which are owned by MoMA), painted between 1950 – 53, depict women with ferocious, almost demonic expressions through slashing brushstrokes that fairly leap out of the canvas. At the time, some accused him of being misogynistic. You be the judge. They are here, gathered together for the first – and perhaps last time— and worth the price of admission.

Elderfield and his fellow curators at MoMA were so taken by this iconic “Women” series that at the entrance to the show – which fills the entire 6th Floor – they have mounted six photographic iterations of “Woman I.” They document the process of transformation, from inspiration to final incarnation, and one sees how the final female image emerges out of deKooning’s somewhat chaotic initial canvas. It’s a fascinating art lesson and insight into the man and his work and worth revisiting after one has toured the entire oeuvre.

deKooning is best known as an abstract expressionist who never totally abandoned the figurative image. That may be, in part, because he brought a knowledge of Dutch-Flemish painting and academic training to his work. To emphasize this point, the first room in the show displays one of his earliest works, an exquisite and wholly conventional “Still Life,” which he created in 1921 as a student in the Netherlands. But deKooning was a fast learner and moved with the times. Once he arrived in New York, and immersed himself in the art scene, peopled by Pollack, Newman and Rothko, among others, his work gradually reflected – though never imitated — the dynamic and revolutionary styles burgeoning around him.

1946 -49 were his “Breakthrough Years.” His first solo show in 1948 consisting of abstract black-and-white paintings, put him firmly on the avant-garde map. He was only 44.

But deKooning never stuck to one style. Once he felt he had become too proficient, he moved on to an altogether different way of looking at the world. Two years after his acclaimed black-and-white exhibition, for example, he produced his largest and highly colorful easel painting, considered one of his major achievements, “Excavation.”

Two years after that, he fashioned his dramatic “Women” paintings, followed in the late 50s by still another style, coined “Full Arm Swing,” with an altogether different brush stroke and color palette. Between 1970 and 80, he continued to fuse abstraction, landscape and the female figure. And even his very late paintings, though emptier than his earlier canvases, seem to capture the distilled essence — in bright, transparent colors — of the female form. They are delightful.

With figurative art again ascendant, this sweeping overview of deKooning’s oeuvre — the first in three decades — may well be a revelation to young artists. For others it should deepen their appreciation of his unique and richly-colorful body of work.

Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag

deKooning: a Retrospective
MoMA
September 18 – January 9th

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