October 15, 2011

deKooning, Until 1949, in Color and Black & White

Father, Mother, Sister, Brother, c. 1937; oil on board, 12 x 22 inches.

The large and comprehensive exhibition of the work of Willem deKooning now at the Museum of Modern Art is a completely exhilarating experience. Ah...the paint! the drawing, the color and line; the sheer passion in evidence! It is a meager thing to see online reproductions, but I did want to share my excitement. If only I could have taken photographs at the show, I would have loved to show many details, to give a sense of the richness of the marks, of the way deKooning built his forms with lines of charcoal and brush, leaving a layered story on the surface of the painting. But a few small images will have to do. They are all from the excellent website for the show, where you can see more paintings and drawings. Because there is just so much to look at, I thought I'd focus on the earlier part of his career, because for me there were more surprises, more work with which I was unfamiliar. There was a very accomplished still life drawing, made when he was 17 years old and still in his native Holland, that looks back to humble Dutch still lives. I love the painting above: the color, and the organic shapes held in place by a geometry of line and shape. But it gives only a small indication as to the powerful work that would soon follow.

Seated Woman, c. 1940; oil and charcoal on masonite, 54 1/16 x 36 inches.

There are such beautiful color harmonies in the paintings of the 40s; icy blues and greens alongside the warmth of yellow and reds. Line, in paint and charcoal, searches out form. I am struck by the pure grace of this image, and find myself thinking of Indian miniatures, which also have flat areas of gorgeous color bounded by sensitive line; also of Matisse, and of course Arshile Gorky, a friend and great influence. The paint is alive, the surface doesn't sit still, the figure is lost and found and lost again.

The Wave, c. 1942-44; oil on fiberboard, 48 x 48 inches.

Bouncing bulbous forms, weighted, floating, held in by the room, or the edges of the canvas; an opening, washed red, like a geometric sentinel. The paint is brushed on thickly and thinly, opaque and transparent, layered and scratched; there is the sense of a fierce search.

Pink Angels, c. 1945; oil and charcoal on canvas, 52 x 40 inches.

With this painting I can quote deKooning, in one of his most famous sayings: "Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented." The furious flesh of a sensuous woman is broken apart, entwined in the gold of her surroundings. The line is curving and elegant, the paint wrestled with. The search for form is so palpable that it gives the painting a vibrant life, a powerful presence.

Judgment Day, 1946; oil and charcoal on paper, 22 1/8 x 28 1/2 inches.

When I look at this terrific small painting, in which there's a vigorous confusion of forms, with charcoal lines adding structure and at the same time making it more frenzied, I can't help but think of the fantastic monsters in the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch. Although the color is bright, the mood is dark, as these terrible beings writhe in their tangled space.

Orestes, 1947; enamel on paper mounted on plywood, 24 1/8 x 36 1/8 inches.

At the exhibition was a spectacular long wall of deKooning's black and white paintings from the late 40s, all mid-sized, all with the most luscious of paint surfaces. The story goes, according to the great biography deKooning: An American Master by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, that deKooning was so poor that he sometimes couldn't afford paint. So one day he and Franz Kline decided to go to a sign painters store (deKooning had been a sign painter) and buy 5 gallon cans of black and white enamel paint. But, the book points out, there had also been the influence of Picasso, who had been using Ripolin enamel, painting in black and white, and leaving drips on his paintings.

Dark Pond, 1948; enamel on composition board, 46 3/4 x 55 3/4 inches.

Whatever the reason, this stripping down of means opened a new range of expression, bold and tactile, of black shape building on shape, defined by white. In Dark Pond the white lines are like light seeping through, creating layers of complex spaces. This painting is like a novel, full of stories, intertwining and richly detailed, compellingly wrought. I love this painting.

Painting, 1948; enamel and oil on canvas, 42 5/8 x 56 1/8 inches.

Painting is another intense and complex image, with the shapes seeming to exist in more of an actual room space, hovering above the dripped white at upper left and the geometry at the right. Although abstract, there is a sense of object-ness as each weighty form demands a place; the surface of the work tells of this struggle to achieve rightness, a glorious wrestling with paint.

Attic, 1949; oil, enamel, and newspaper transfer on canvas, 61 7/8 x 81 inches.

With this much larger painting, as with the great Excavation which follows, white becomes the primary color, with black as the color of line. The forms are dense, swirling, bursting with aggressive life. deKooning's paintings look as though they are done with great bursts of intuitive activity, but he approached them carefully and deliberately. Again from the biography, Gus Falk, a former student, described deKooning working on this painting: "'Maybe I could throw a line here', he would say. He would erase parts, redraw it. In other words, he did it like Ingres. It was not throwing his guts on the wall." That this work was never easy is evident in the depth of feeling in the paintings. He never settled on a theme or style, comfortably repeating them, but kept moving and experimenting, creating a life's body of work that for me is the greatest of his generation.


  1. how delicious --
    ive read a few reviews of this show but i appreciate this one very much -- thanks for spending time with us in front of a few particular pieces --
    will make sure to see this in december --

  2. your inspired description & sheer enthusiasm are a terrific companion for these works, Altoon.

  3. Thanks so much to you both for the nice comments. It's great to have the positive feedback.

  4. I have always been drawn to his early work, and you have provided a great overview of this period. Thanks Altoon.

  5. I'm glad you liked this post, Tamar.