de Kooning's Hurrah!

Museum of Modern Art

By Carter B. Horsley

About a decade ago, I was strolling down East 8th Street with my mother on a lovely spring day when a short, fairly unkempt, elderly man with twinkling eyes ran up to her and hugged her. Apparently, she knew him for they chatted animatedly non-stop for about half an hour as I stood patiently to one side.

Finally, they waved good-bye and I asked my mother, "Who was that?"

"Oh, sorry, that was Bill de Kooning," she said casually.

"What?" I exclaimed, wondering whether I was annoyed at not having been introduced, or just impressed.

My mother knew all the great artists in New York in the 1930's before she got sidetracked into being my mother. She would run into them at parties over the next three decades, and occasionally at the Cedar Bar on University Place between 8th and 9th Streets where she would imbibe some bourbon with a New York University professor of chemistry and physics who had 5 doctorate degrees and whose family had owned Mouquin's, the great saloon painted by William Glackens.

My mother had studied anthropology and was head of the textile division of the Treasury Department's Works Progress Administration's art program in the 1930's. Although she had been interested in modern and tribal art, by the time I started going to school in the mid-1940's she had fallen in love with the Hudson River School of landscape painters of the 19th Century whose paintings were auctioned off for a few dollars, literally, then at the various auction houses where we spent most Saturdays on University Place like Kalisky and Gabay and Lawners, and the nearby Astor over on Broadway.

I grew up with the Hudson River School paintings and therefore was a little impatient with more recent work, but as we ambled through the lovely auction galleries of Parke-Bernet on Madison Avenue between 76th and 77th Streets a few years later, she would point out the paintings of many of her former friends and acquaintances like Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Burgoyne Diller, Guy Pene du Bois, who lived in our building at 20 West 10th Street, and others, including de Kooning. I came to appreciate them, but I always had a problem with de Kooning, whose large paintings of women just were too messy for my taste (and still are).

I asked my mother what she and de Kooning had talked about on the street, and she smiled and shrugged off the question in quite an imperial manner and said, "Friends."

She had not seen him for at least a couple of decades and I gather they had never been too close, but I also gather from other conversations I had had with my mother that she had been very much a center of attention among many New York artists for a few years in the 1930's because of her ebullient enthusiasms, striking beauty, sharp wit and, most importantly, her "eye."

She always chided me about my quick artistic judgments and urged me to try to paint to see not only how difficult it is but also to learn to observe and understand technique. De Kooning was one of the few very artists on which we were not in judgmental agreement.

How sad, then, that my mother died a few years ago and could not see the current de Kooning exhibition of his late work at the Museum of Modern Art!

She would have loved it and appreciated the fact that I love it.

For a naïve like myself, the show is a revelation of painterly lines whose dynamics are scintillating and energetic and whose style is a total surprise in comparison with his earlier work.

There are about 30 large paintings, of only two sizes, in the exhibition and they are uniformly bold and richly colored. The immediate sensation is minimalist, but that is wrong for these are deep works of considerable complexity. The first associations that come to mind are of Leger and Lewitt and Klee and Twombly and Diebenkorn and early Picabia and the Russian Constructivists. But such comparisons are puerile and irrelevant.

These de Koonings are simply staggering, notwithstanding some academic questions about his "senility" and what role his "assistants" may have played in these creations.

They are not all masterpieces. Indeed, many have minor "flaws" of composition and even delineation and a few are a little odd in their palette, mostly the greenish-yellows. Most of the paintings have a bright white background whose texture is extremely lovely and relatively smooth as opposed to what I probably called the "mud pies" of his early women.

But almost every one has a great rhythmic force and all make you not only want to see more because they are quite different from one another but also to see color variations. De Kooning's lines are alive here, but not the fabled slap-dash splatter of Abstract Expressionism, of which he was a founding father, but in the greatly dimensional and sinuous sharpness of a Botticelli.

These paintings are intensely vital and facile, a remarkable achievement that delivers a sense of spontaneity despite both the large scale of the works and the fact, nicely demonstrated in the exhibition, that most of the oil paintings were dramatically reworked in many layers.

Applying Rorschach-tests is a passé pastime nowadays, but some of the paintings appear to have quite realistic roots in a chair or a bare back. There is a real, palpable sense that these works are not merely abstract doodling, but refined, reduced imprints of visions. There is human mystery and purpose here, and a snippet of an overheard lecture by the curator in the galleries indicated that in some the painter alludes to earlier work. Indeed, his "Night Square" painting of 1951 with white, squiggly lines against a black background, not included in the show, was a two-dimensional stylistic precursor of the late almost 3-dimensional works A run through the museum's other galleries after viewing the exhibition comes as a shock as few of de Kooning's fellow Abstract Expressionists seem to be in the same league as the paintings here. There are a couple of earlier, small and dark de Koonings that are quite interesting, however.

The exhibition's catalogue is, thankfully, relatively inexpensive at under $30, but unfortunately its color reproductions are not too accurate and do not convey the vibrancy of the works.

If his early work was ominous, his late work is luminous. There is a space within these paintings, in which perspective floats and changes, in which there is almost an holographic immersion. Each stroke, so it seems, defines new planes, some penetrating and twisting, some emerging.


A reproduction of one of the major works in this exhibition is in The City Review article on the November 11, 2003 Contemporary Art evening auction at Christie's

For reproductions of three de Kooning paintings sold at Sotheby's in May, 2000, see The City Review article on the auction

Click here or on the picture below of the catalogue's cover to order the catalogue at 30 percent off list price from


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