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Willem de Maestro

MoMA gives de Kooning his due.

Oct 31, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 07 • By DANIEL GELERNTER
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Because de Kooning used representation to experiment, his women are never as great as the nonwomen that followed. In his discussion with Elderfield, MoMA director Glenn Lowry was proud to point out that the 1950-53 women were not only the center of de Kooning’s career but the “topographical” center of the retrospective. (And they are masterfully displayed on the center wall of the center room.) Many otherwise-perceptive art historians mistakenly consider these paintings the greatest, or at least most important, of de Kooning’s career. (MoMA chose its own piece from the series, Woman I, for the catalogue cover.) But these works have never recovered from the notoriety of the 1953 Sidney Janis Gallery show, which Harold Rosenberg (inventor of the phrase “action painting”) used to anchor his fight against the preeminent hostile critic, Clement Greenberg.

When de Kooning had his first solo show at the Egan Gallery in 1948, Greenberg was exhaustively enthusiastic about the great black-and-white works such as Black Friday and Painting. (The latter, de Kooning’s first museum acquisition, was purchased by MoMA in 1948.) Greenberg called de Kooning “an outright ‘abstract’ painter.” But de Kooning’s return to women horrified him. To paint the figure, Greenberg thought, was to betray modern art. Rosenberg co-opted the woman paintings as a means of setting himself apart from Greenberg and became de Kooning’s most voluble supporter among the leading critics. (Greenberg, thinking that Jackson Pollock had run his course, entrenched with
Clyfford Still.)

The woman paintings of 1950-53 were, by virtue of being at the center of the debate on what modern art ought to be, elevated to the high status they still enjoy but do not quite deserve. Greenberg was right that, taking each painting as a whole, they aren’t as good as the earlier abstractions. He failed to notice, however, that certain abstract passages in the new woman paintings were more focused, brilliant in brushwork, and explosive in color than anything de Kooning had produced before. De Kooning’s new manner of abstraction took over the whole canvas. The female form (fainter and fainter as de Kooning progressed) was buried and shattered, just as it had been with the women of 1948 and those in his first series from the early ’40s. Each return to the figure—to women—was a new beginning, and de Kooning developed through the gradual destruction and sublimation of the figure. When he had taken an idea as far as it would go, the figure was gone. It was replaced by pure energy.

The great abstractions of the mid-1950s contain more energy—hurricane-force intensity—per square inch than any other paintings in the show. No de Koonings are greater than Interchange, Police Gazette, or Gotham News (all 1955) with their enriched-uranium levels of energy density—except, perhaps, the paintings on the opposite wall, the grand-gesture paintings, what Art News’s Thomas Hess called “the full arm sweep.” These works—among them Park Rosenberg and Bolton Landing (both 1957) and Suburb in Havana (1958)—are what you’d get if you blew up two square inches of a 1953 woman painting to big-canvas size. Controlled chaos and overall frenzy is replaced by the majesty and freedom of the big brush. De Kooning simplified his palette—warm yellow, cream, ultramarine, red earth—and the subdued colors of these paintings gave way, after de Kooning visited Rome at the turn of the decade, to the luminous Door to the River (1960) and Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point (1963). Brown is replaced by creamy, peach pink. It has the effect of bringing Suburb in Havana into bright daylight and taking an overexposed photograph.

This show’s most magnificent moment comes as one turns to the left, away from Door to the River, to face the far wall. There are five large canvases, from left to right: Untitled XI (1975), ...Whose Name Was Writ in Water (1975), Untitled I (1977), Screams of Children Come from Seagulls (1975), and Untitled (1977). I had never considered de Kooning’s ’70s abstractions his greatest, but the effect created by these five paintings together is without parallel. The color and form and flow is overwhelmingly, surpassingly lovely. And to get from the “full arm sweep” to these utterly different pieces, de Kooning once again painted women. MoMA gives the “Clam Diggers” women of the 1960s and their subsequent abstractification a whole room, which is too much. These paintings are the weakest, lacking the ferocity of the earlier women; and despite the occasional success in color, the overall effect is flimsy vulgarity.

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