Tuesday, October 25, 2011

de Kooning Retrospective at the MoMA

de Kooning's paintings make sense for me when they are seen as a part of the whole, a restless, always-moving whole. They are experimental in spirit, and so they change in method, materials and manner, although the themes of women and landscape recur in the oeuvre. The women appear in early abstracted interiors, then appear in later abstracted landscapes, and they become landscapes in the third Woman series. He is Matisse painting outdoors. His textiles and fabrics are the patchworks of light. He abstracts his figures more radically than Matisse ever did, reducing them to floating fragments and suggestions, but the love of women holds him, as it did Matisse, to figuration. His art is essentially erotic.

The breakthrough black-and-whites, painted in 1945, I find fascinating, even moving. They make beautiful, entangled shapes. Again and again, as if fighting against a strong innate feeling for shapeliness, de Kooning breaks his compositions apart. He does to achieve intensity. He puts pressure on his forms. He is wary of mere graphic prettiness, of commercial art. He wants to be taken seriously. He takes his perceptions with utmost seriousness. This, yes, heroic effort renders the ethereal last paintings utterly poignant. The slick white surface, the ribbons of blue and red, splashes of yellow, are almost too pretty. They come close to hotel lobby art. But they are suffused by a spiritual light. They have the glow of tremendous force applied and then withdrawn. They are an outcome. They show what a late-style can feel like.

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