Art Fag City At The L Magazine: The de Kooning Myths

by Paddy Johnson on October 26, 2011 · 4 comments The L Magazine

de Kooning detail courtesy of The L Magazine

This week at The L Magazine I discuss the de Kooning retrospective at The MoMA. Unlike seemingly everyone else, I didn’t love the exhibition. An excerpt below

As the show traces the progression from de Kooning’s early career to late paintings made during his struggle with Alzheimer’s, the stylistic connections between different parts of his career become clear. “Untitled,” an abstract watercolor from 1936, appears overly cautious; in his Abstract Expressionist paintings of women in the 50s, though, we see that caution give way to ambition. The same sinuous lines, deliberate and precise, appear in each, though in the later works they are transformed into that famous violence, palpable and suddenly omnipresent, against the female form.

That continuity of gesture is critical to understanding de Kooning’s oeuvre, and it demonstrates a flaw in the dominant historical narrative of Abstract Expressionism. De Kooning’s work is too often described as giving physical form, through gesture and scale, to the aggression and power of male-dominated painting in the 50s. A studied examination of many of his better known figurative paintings from the 40s and 50s, though, shows that the way he applied paint to the canvas was careful and even delicate, and certainly anything but savage.

To read the full piece click here.


Sven October 26, 2011 at 8:31 pm

how would you have liked the exhibition more?

Paddy Johnson October 28, 2011 at 3:39 am

There probably aren’t a lot of ways I’d change the arrangement or selection of work but I do think the scholarship of the exhibition could have been raised. People always say the work should speak for itself, and while that’s not untrue, it’s amazing what strong scholarship can bring. If I’m supposed to be looking for something I don’t find, I think it’s a failure of curatorship. 

Honestly though, as far as show genres go, I very often find retrospectives unsatisfactory; no one works in a vacuum, and it’s hard to really illuminate the world in which works are made without exhibiting contemporaries. 

Brian Sherwin October 26, 2011 at 10:32 pm

James Rosenquist told me that he felt de Kooning was the “first outsider artist” in his opinion. From his description de Kooning was a rough and tumble sort — not exactly the guy you would want to piss off in a bar fight.  🙂

J. A. JACKSON December 15, 2011 at 3:18 pm

I love how some of of his early works look almost graffiti-like. It captures a different aspect of his gestural style when a figure isn’t present.  lovely!

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