De Kooning and the critics

As the current survey opens in London, we look at how it fared in the US


Following its presentation at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the Metropolitan Museum, New York, the current survey of the career of Willem de Kooning (see The Art Newspaper, No.38, May 1994, pp. 8 and 22-24) is opening at the Tate Gallery (16 February-7 May). For this final venue, there are several changes in the list of exhibits, the most important of which is the inclusion of "Woman III" (1952) which had belonged to the Teheran Museum of Contemporary Art until it was exchanged for a precious Persian manuscript in July 1994 (see The Art Newspaper, No. 41, October 1994, p.1). This fascinating recovery will be listed as "courtesy of Thomas Ammann Fine Art, Zurich" but is believed to have been purchased by record and entertainment mogul David Geffen.

Selected by British art historian David Sylvester, Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery, and Marla Prather, associate curator of NGA's department of twentieth-century art, the exhibition concentrates upon the artist's masterpieces presented as a series of historical chapters and should have confirmed the reputation of a remarkable master of Abstract Expressionism. But the inclusion of works from all stages of his career is considered by some critics to have exposed the weaknesses of the pictures created by the artist in the last eight or nine years of his working life.

The New York Times

"You couldn't ask for a more distinguished selection of his paintings than this one, which includes the very cream of the crop from his long career, something that the Whitney Museum of Art's ill-conceived retrospective a decade ago failed to do ... But it's hard to see many of the ones which Mr de Kooning did during the early 60s, after he moved to Long Island, except as confections compared with the earlier paintings, pink and terracotta marzipans after the red meat course had been served... In the 80s there was another emptying out, radical compared with the previous one. Heavy impasto gives way to flat, sanded and scraped surfaces, a rainbow of colours to red, orange and blue ribbons twisting on white grounds. The work is airy, lyrical and elegant, a memory of Mr de Kooning's 40s art without the famous stress and strain". (Michael Kimmelman, 15 May 1994)

Washington Post

"This show aims for grandeur. Its curators sought the painter's finest works, and for the most part got them. Rightly they excluded his big galumphing bronzes, his half-cartoony sketches, and the scribbles he produced (with his left hand) while staring at the TV... The airy, final canvases from 1983 to 1986 that conclude the exhibition are a bit more problematic. The opposite of tortured, they fill the room with an easy drifting beauty. Their handwriting is still unquestionably de Kooning's, but that old, familiar mood of intentional imbalance, of decision wracked by doubt, has pretty much dissolved."

(Paul Richard, 8 May 1994)

Philadelphia Enquirer

"De Kooning's art has been so well known for so long that there aren't any secrets in it left to discover. Rather, the show invites the viewer to evaluate, in a historical sense, one of the most productive and distinguished careers in twentieth-century art... As to his peak years, De Kooning was most inventive when he was responding to Cubism, as he was through the mid-1950s. When he moved to eastern Long Island in 1963 and began to paint landscapes, he became less convincing. Returning to the figure a few years later, he rejuvenated himself ... The lyrical paintings of the 1980s, when viewed in the context of a full career, seem decidedly stronger and more original than they have generally been considered to be ... [they] are quieter and far more poetic than anything he had ever done."

(Edward Sozanski, 15 May 1994)

Los Angeles Times

"By the end of the 1960s and in the early 1970s, his painting goes slack for the first time. You feel him stumbling, as if in search of his sea legs. He reiterates the earlier themes of women and gestural landscape, often melding the two in playfully insouciant ways, but his pictures feel distracted ... The second problem is the final room. In the 1980s De Kooning was still enthralled with the soul-searching, life-altering possibilities for visual pleasure in painting. But the eight selected canvases are uneven at best. Especially on the heels of the knockout gallery of gorgeous pictures from 1977-78 that immediately precedes it, the erratic last room inappropriately sends you out the door with a few doubts about the claims that have been made for De Kooning's last works." (Christopher Knight, 29 May 1994)

Burlington Magazine

"The show provided an opportunity to rethink de Kooning. However, that it does not do... The curators, in seeking to illustrate the continuity of the artist's oeuvre, have brought forth a de Kooning we have not seen before: a monotonous painter."

(Stephen Polcari, September 1994)

Modern Painters

"In this exhibition, what I have described as de Kooning's peak period - the abstract paintings of 1946-50 - serve as a mere prelude to the pictures produced from the 1960s to the 1980s. The exhibition is thus swamped by paintings which it now pleases official opinion to regard as unassailable masterpieces but which, in my view, are the kind of transparent failures that would not detain his admirers for a moment if they were not known to have been produced by him... In my reading of his work, all the later abstractions - all the later figure paintings, too, for that matter - are flaccid, incontinent, unrealised pictures that are more like mock-ups for paintings than completed works of art. Which is why for some of us de Kooning became something of a ghost or spectre on the art scene long before he succumbed first to alcoholism and then to Alzheimer's disease in the later decades of his long life."

(Hilton Kramer, Summer 1994)