Review by Catherine Spencer
The Museum of Modern Art’s Willem De Kooning show is a challenge, and I use the word in both senses: there are productively, engagingly difficult works here that revel in their materiality to stage, over and over, a Modernist celebration of paint’s unique expressive potentialities, and there are works (sometimes the same ones) that are problematically difficult. Specifically, those that force us to question just how, even after over half a century, we should respond to De Kooning’s women, their bodies bifurcated by slashing brushstrokes, with pneumatic breasts and garish, inescapably vagina-dentata-esque smiles. Totemic power figures, or savagely traduced stereotypes’ Monuments to unbridled sexuality or misogynistic fantasy’ All, or none, of these’
It feels unfair to begin this review, moth to flame, by homing in on De Kooning’s well-rehearsed representations of the female form, especially when the MoMA show aims specifically to counter such myopic accounts. Certainly, the breadth of work - generous even for a blockbuster retrospective - dramatically expands the Abstract Expressionist tag. De Kooning’s output was diverse, with a protean approach to materials - from light pencil sketches to thick swathes of paint smeared as if straight from the tube, through lumpy, molten-looking sculptures to delicately applied enamels - making the movement from room to room at MoMA a dizzying, elating experience. Yet while the selection emphasises De Kooning was as concerned with landscape and abstraction as he was with the figure, it also demonstrates how these obsessions were inextricably interconnected within his practice.
This is apparent from the first room, where early landscapes and still-lifes from the late 1930s and early 40s become palpably biomorphic with each passing year. There are pieces of subtle, affective power like Pink Landscape (c.1942), an amorphous, plangent collation of pink and yellow smudges, balanced with a piercing blue form, which suggests the clear softness of a morning before the dirtiness of the day has been trampled into it. Their placement by early figure studies, perhaps the most interesting of which to an eye conditioned by De Kooning’s grinning women are Seated Man (c.1939) and Seated Figure (Classic Male) (c.1941-3), indicate how these two interests, the figure and the landscape, would soon merge. The latter’s lobster-pink musculature, broken up by a series of increasingly fragmentary lines, is echoed by the more abstract but distinctly phallic globules of rose flesh in Pink Angels (1945). Singing out against their mustard-yellow surround, these are forms in conflict, seeking either to cohere or separate, whose scuffling impresses the viewer with violently desperate bodily desires.
The following rooms focus on De Kooning’s move to abstraction during the later 1940s, dominated by the so-called ‘Black Paintings’. These breakthrough pieces allowed him to test the extremes of abstraction, and develop an artistic vocabulary that enabled the economic fusion of natural and figurative references in the same mark. There is a feeling of stoppage about Painting (1948), with its etiolated scaffold of white lines dragged over black, and sections of thick, viscous enamel paint clogging and blistering in troubled rivulets. Yet Painting, and works like Dark Pond (1948), retain a figurative armature, evoking hidden anatomical and natural forms. A sense of grappling with, or uncovering this layered content is signalled by the 1950 painting Excavation, an exhibition highlight. In this huge, engrossing canvas a kaleidoscopic scatter of tinselly colour fragments - reds, blues, greens - are embedded in a matrix of flesh-coloured shapes and black lines. ‘Matrix’, though, isn’t quite right, suggesting something more controlled that what Excavation offers, with its sense of violent scuffle, of something precious dismembered in a fit of tearing passion.
If Excavation and Asheville (1948), another important work from this period, use abstraction to combine natural and human connotations, then De Kooning’s landscapes equally present nature in terms of sensorial, immersive, human experience. The bold, immediate brushwork in Palisade (1957), for example, creates the effect of imaginative and physical flight, assaulting the viewer with a confusion of paint that coveys both cataclysmic atmospheric effects, and the experience of viewing the land, river and sea from the air. This is landscape as something integrated with the body, and it’s not always easy on the eye or the mind, as in later works like Screams of Children Come from Seagulls (1974) where umbilical loops of blue, white, light brown and pink paint contain queasy associations with viscera and digestive processes, as well as the light and movement of a sunny day at the beach.
The landscapes are perhaps the biggest surprise at MoMA, yet their bodily affect links them to the more well known figurative works. The conceptual, formal and literal heart of MoMA’s hang remains De Kooning’s engagement with the female form, with the central rooms displaying his large-scale paintings of women from the early 1950s that caused uproar and accusations of misogyny when first exhibited at New York’s Sidney Janis Gallery in 1953. There’s a Woman from 1949-5, her purple mushroom-cloud of a body all bulbous excrescences; the tiny study Woman (1950) with a perfect mouth pilfered from a magazine and two huge insect-shaped proboscis eyes; the greenish, Golem-like Woman 1 (1950-2); and Woman With a Bicycle (1923-5), in which the titular figure laughs with two mouths and clasps her machine with vital, manic, energy. Paint is heavy with the weight of flesh and limbs, thighs and arms enlivened with vibrant colours passages of purple, yellow, and orange, but the overall effect is overwhelming, oppressive: these women are definitely alive, but both terrifying and pitiful.
In a room containing paintings made between 1960-9 in East Long Island, the same salmon pinks used to suggest passages of movement and light in Door to the River (1963) reappear in the Clam Diggers (1963), two erotically interlinked nudes whose flesh blossoms softly like lichen across an old wall. Clam Diggers could at once be a slightly sad, priapic indulgence, a celebration of the body and desire, and a condemnation of artificial fantasy, but whatever your take on it, the correspondences between these works stresses the impossibility of avoiding issues of gendered bodily representation when considering De Kooning’s landscapes. De Kooning himself said ‘the landscape is in the woman and there is woman in the landscapes’, underlining a simultaneously privileged and ‘primitivising’ association between female flesh and nature.
Material and thematic challenges abound at MoMA. De Kooning asks us to consider the extent to which painterly abstraction can be achieved, or is even desirable. His paint is by no means pure, but dragged with dirt and grounded by the body. Whether or not his work is misogynist is perhaps an unhelpful question: instead, these paintings demand that we think about how the body is represented, and the network of socio-cultural traditions and association impinging on that representation. In the last rooms there is an emptying out of form and content, as the paintings from the 70s and 80s become increasingly elliptical and non-committal. While some of these are beautifully meditative, it’s in the earlier rooms, where De Kooning is being deliberately difficult and indigestible, that the meat of this show lies.