Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997), The Cat's Meow, 1987, Oil on canvas, 223.5 x 195.6 cm, Frame: 227.3 x 198.8 x 5.1 cm, Collection Jasper Johns, © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997), Untitled (The Cow Jumps Over the Moon), 1937-38, Oil on masonite, 52 x 93 cm, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum. Gift of Dr. Ernest G. Stillman, Class of 1907, by exchange, © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning, an Action Painter's Progress over nearly 70 Years

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997), Painting, 1948, Enamel and oil on canvas, 108.3 x 142.5 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase, 1948, © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997), Judgment Day, 1946, Oil and charcoal on paper, 56.2 x 72.4 cm, Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. From the Collection of Thomas B. Hess, Gift of the heirs of Thomas B. Hess, © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997), Untitled (1967) Charcoal on transparentized paper, 47.6 x 60.9 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist, © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands, 1904-1997), Excavation, 1950, Oil and enamel on canvas, 205.7 x 254.6 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago. Mr. and Mrs. Frank G. Logan Purchase Prize Fund; restricted gifts of Edgar J. Kaufmann, Jr., and Mr. and Mrs. Noah Goldowsky, Jr. © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997), Rider (Untitled VII), 1985, Oil on canvas, 177.8 x 203.2 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase and gift of Milly and Arnold Glimcher, © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997), Seated Woman on a Bench, 1972, Bronze, 95.9 x 91.4 x 87.3 cm, Private collection, © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997), Gotham News, 1955, Oil, enamel, charcoal, and newspaper transfer on canvas, 175.3 x 200.7 cm, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo. Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr. © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997), ...Whose Name Was Writ in Water, 1975, Oil on canvas, 195 x 222.9 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997), Two Women with Still Life, 1952, Pastel on paper, 57.2 x 61 cm, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Bequest of Marcia Simon Weisman. © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997), Backdrop for Labyrinth, 1946, Calcimine and charcoal on canvas, 462.3 x 533.4 cm, The Allan Stone Collection, © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997), Interchanged, 1955, Oil on canvas, 200.7 x 175.3 cm), Collection David Geffen, Los Angeles, © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997), Pirate (Untitled II), 1981, Oil on canvas, 223.4 x 194.4 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection Fund, 1982, © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands, 1904-1997), Park Rosenberg, 1957, Oil on canvas, 203.2 x 177.8 cm, Private collection, © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997), Pink Angels, c. 1945, Oil and charcoal on canvas, 132.1 x 101.6 cm, Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation, Los Angeles, © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

 

Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53 Street
212-708-9400
New York
The Rene d'Harnoncourt Exhibition Galleries,
sixth floor
de Kooning: A Retrospective
September 18, 2011–January 9, 2012

Willem de Kooning is widely considered to be among the most important and prolific artists of the 20th century. The exhibition de Kooning: A Retrospective, which will be seen only at MoMA, presents an unparalleled opportunity to study the artist’s development over nearly seven decades, beginning with his early academic works, made in Holland before he moved to the United States in 1926, and concluding with his final, sparely abstract paintings of the late 1980s.

Bringing together more than 200 works from public and private collections, the exhibition is the first to occupy the Museum’s entire sixth-floor gallery space, totaling approximately 17,000 square feet. The retrospective is organized by John Elderfield, Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art.

Representing nearly every type of work de Kooning made, in both technique and subject matter, this retrospective includes paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints. Among these are the artist’s most famous, landmark paintings — among them Pink Angels (1945), Excavation (1950), and the celebrated third Woman series (1950-53) — plus in-depth presentations of all his most important series, ranging from his figurative paintings of the early 1940s to the breakthrough black-and-white compositions of 1948-49, and from the urban abstractions of the mid 1950s to the artist’s return to figuration in the 1960s, and the large gestural abstractions of the following decade. Also included is de Kooning’s famous yet largely unseen theatrical backdrop, the 17-foot-square Labyrinth (1946).

De Kooning's early artistic training included eight years at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques. In the 1920s he worked as an assistant to the art director of a Rotterdam department store. de Kooning was one of the 38 artists chosen from a general invitation to New York City metropolitan artists to design and paint the 105 public murals at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

In 1938, probably under the influence of Arshile Gorky, De Kooning embarked on a series of male figures, including Two Men Standing, Man, and Seated Figure (Classic Male), while simultaneously embarking on a more purist series of lyrically colored abstractions, such as Pink Landscape and Elegy. As his work progressed, the heightened colors and elegant lines of the abstractions began to creep into the more figurative works, and the coincidence of figures and abstractions continued well into the 1940s. This period includes the representational but somewhat geometricized Woman and Standing Man, along with numerous untitled abstractions whose biomorphic forms increasingly suggest the presence of figures. By about 1945 the two tendencies seemed to fuse perfectly in Pink Angels.

In 1938, De Kooning met Elaine Marie Fried, later known as Elaine de Kooning, whom he married in 1943. She also became a significant artist. During the 1940s and thereafter, he became increasingly identified with the Abstract Expressionist movement and was recognized as one of its leaders in the mid-1950s. In 1948, De Kooning had his first one-man show, which consisted of his black-and-white enamel compositions, at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York. He taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1948 and at the Yale School of Art in 1950/51. In 1950, De Kooning was one of 17 prominent Abstract Expressionists and avant-garde artists to sign an open letter to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art accusing it of hostility towards “advanced art.”

The Estate of de Kooning is represented by The Pace Gallery.

In 1946, too poor to buy artists' pigments, he turned to black and white household enamels to paint a series of large abstractions; of these works, Light in August (c. 1946) and Black Friday (1948) are essentially black with white elements, whereas Zurich (1947) and Mailbox (1947/48) are white with black. Developing out of these works in the period after his first show were complex, agitated abstractions such as Asheville (1948/49), Attic (1949), and Excavation (1950; Art Institute of Chicago), which reintroduced color and seem to sum up with taut decisiveness the problems of free-associative composition he had struggled with for many years.

The hallmark of de Kooning's style was an emphasis on complex figure ground ambiguity. Background figures would overlap other figures causing them to appear in the foreground, which in turn might be overlapped by dripping lines of paint thus positioning the area into the background.

De Kooning had painted women regularly in the early 1940s and again from 1947 to 1949. The biomorphic shapes of his early abstractions were derived from objects found in the studio. But it was not until 1950 that he began to explore the subject of women exclusively. In the summer of that year he began Woman I (located at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City), which went through innumerable metamorphoses before it was finished in 1952.

During this period he also created other paintings of women. These works were shown at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1953 and caused a sensation, partially because they were figurative when most of his fellow Abstract Expressionists were painting abstractly, but also because of their blatant imagery. Aggressive brushwork and strategically placed high-key colors in these paintings merged with images of toothy snarls, overripe, pendulous breasts, enlarged eyes and blasted extremities to reveal a woman seemingly congruent with some of modern man's most widely held sexual fears. Some of these paintings also appeared to reference early Mesopotamian / Akkadian works, with the large eyes and squarely chiseled bodies.

The Woman paintings II through VI (1952-53) are all variants on this theme, as are Woman and Bicycle (1953; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) and Two Women in the Country (1954). The deliberate vulgarity of these paintings contrast with the French painter Jean Dubuffet's Corps de Dame series of 1950, in which iconic female/goddess imagery was created with a topography of earth colours, and are generally perceived as less provocative.

From the late 1950s to the early 1960s, De Kooning entered a new phase of nearly pure abstractions more related to landscape than to the human figure. These paintings, such as Bolton Landing (1957) and Door to the River (1960) bear broad brushstrokes and calligraphic tendencies similar to works of his contemporary Franz Kline.

In 1963, De Kooning moved permanently to East Hampton, Long Island, and returned to depicting women while also referencing the landscape in such paintings as Woman, Sag Harbor, and Clam Diggers. He also turned to sculpture in later years, creating a number of works that were later cast in bronze.

On September 14, 1964, De Kooning was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson. In 1986, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.

In later years, de Kooning was diagnosed with the probability of suffering from Alzheimer's disease. After his wife Elaine died on February 1, 1989, his daughter, Lisa, and his lawyers, Lee and John Eastman were granted guardianship over De Kooning. As the style of his later works continued to evolve into early 1989, his vintage works drew increasing profits; at Sotheby's auctions Pink Lady (1944) sold for $3.6 million in 1987 and Interchange (1955) brought $20.6 million in 1989. In November 2006, Kooning's Woman III was sold by David Geffen to Steven A. Cohen for $137.5 million, making it the second most expensive painting ever sold.

There is much debate over the significance of his 1980s paintings, which became clean, sparse, and almost graphic, while alluding to the biomorphic lines of his early works. Some have said that his very last works present a new direction of compositional complexity and color juxtaposition, and are prophetic of directions that some current painters continue to pursue. Some speculate that his mental condition and years of alcoholism had rendered him unable to carry out the mastery indicated in his early works. Others claim some of these paintings were removed from the studio and exhibited before de Kooning was finished with them. Unfortunately, de Kooning's last works have not been afforded the amount of critical commentary or substantial serious assessment that his earlier works received.

The exhibition publication, including extensive new research on and reevaluation of de Kooning’s long career, will be the most comprehensive book on the artist yet to appear, with an introduction by John Elderfield and contributions by Jennifer Field, Delphine Huisinga, and Lauren Mahony, and conservation studies by Jim Coddington and Susan Lake. Public programs, a MoMA Audio guide, and an interactive website will also accompany the exhibition.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997), Montauk I, 1969, Oil on canvas, 223.5 x 195.6 cm, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund. © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997), Woman, I, 1950-52, Oil, enamel and charcoal on canvas, 192.7 x 147.3 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997), Easter Monday, 1955-56, Oil and newspaper transfer on canvas, 243.8 x 188 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Rogers Fund, © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997), Seated Woman, (1952), Pencil, pastel, and oil on two sheets of paper, 30.8 x 24.2 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Lauder Foundation Fund, © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997), Woman, 1951, Charcoal and pastel on paper, 54.6 x 40.6 cm, Private collection, © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997), Woman, 1950, Oil, cut and pasted paper on cardboard, 37.5 x 29.5 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. From the Collection of Thomas B. Hess, Gift of the heirs of Thomas B. Hess, 1984, © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997), Seated Woman, c. 1940, Oil and charcoal on masonite, 137.2 x 91.4 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Albert M. Greenfield and Elizabeth M. Greenfield Collection, © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997), Clam Digger, 1972, Bronze, 151.1 x 75.2 x 60.3 cm, Private collection, © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997), Woman (1965) Charcoal on transparentized paper, 203.2 x 90.8 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchased with funds provided by Kathy and Richard S. Fuld, Jr., Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder, Thomas Weisel, Agnes Gund, Sally and Wynn Kramarsky, and gift of The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection (by exchange), © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997), Orestes, 1947, Enamel on paper mounted on plywood, 61.3 x 91.8 cm, Private collection, © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.