Click on the slide show at left for a preview tour of the Museum of Modern Art's Willem de Kooning retrospective.
One of the season's first blockbuster museum shows, the Museum of Modern Art's "de Kooning: A Retrospective" curated by chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture John Elderfield, opens to the public on September 18. The aim of the show is nothing less than to rethink the legacy of a modern master. In a series of chronological gallery installations, de Kooning is shown as he constantly experiments, never content within the boundaries of the Abstract Expressionist movement that he became synonymous with. He was forever engaged with the idea of the figure, relentlessly challenging himself to address it in new ways.
The exhibition centers on de Kooning's "Women," his series that — continued throughout the artist's oeuvre — deconstructed a single female figure at full length. His 1942 "Woman" shows a placid seated figure, wavering slightly into abstraction but lacking the energy and dissolution of the artist's later works. "Pink Lady" (1944) has the artist attacking the canvas with shuddering lines and acid colors. At the emotional peak of the exhibition is a throat-throttling series of "Women" carried out in the 1950s, including de Kooning's iconic "Woman I," on display from MoMA's permanent collection. These five epic works re-imagine the female figure as a tornado of paint barely contained by the picture frame. Heads and torsos emerge out of lashes of dark lines and pools of jewel-toned color, the picture dissolving into controlled chaos. Lined up on one wall, they are confrontational, aggressive, implacable — and brilliant, constituting the most powerful evidence that the artist was a lifelong student of the human body.
While abstraction intermingles with figuration throughout the show, the last (and latest) galleries are filled with the artist's graceful and simplified non-objective paintings. These works have for the past decade been considered lesser paintings, carried out under the debilitating influence of encroaching alcoholism and dementia during de Kooning's later years. Elderfield presents them here without prejudice, arguing for a reconsideration of the late work as the equal to the artist's earlier masterpieces. The final gallery space leaves little doubt that de Kooning remained a powerful painter until his death.
For a look at some highlights of "de Kooning: A Retrospective" at the Museum of Modern Art, click on the slideshow at left. The exhibition is open to the public from September 18 to January 9, 2012.