In 1977 an interviewer asked a 73-year-old Willem de Kooning which artists had inspired him and got a somewhat unexpected answer. “I’ve always been crazy about Soutine—all of his paintings,” the Abstract Expressionist said of his Paris School predecessor, Chaïm Soutine. “Maybe it’s the lushness of the paint.” Soutine’s sinewy portraits of pastry chefs do not immediately bring to mind De Kooning’s colourful action paintings, but the resemblance will become clearer in the side-by-side comparisons of 45 paintings at Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation this week.
The exhibition, Soutine/De Kooning: Conversations in Paint, is a collaboration between the Barnes and two Paris museums—the Musée de l’Orangerie and the Musée d’Orsay. It draws on the museums’ extensive Soutine collections but filters them through the lens of De Kooning’s work. It will display the American artist’s canvases chronologically but Soutine’s works in the order that De Kooning engaged with them, portraits first and landscapes last.
This dialogue happened only in impasto, since the two artists never met. De Kooning began seeing Soutine’s work in the 1930s, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and commercial galleries, and admired Soutine’s simultaneously formless and representational brushwork. “Both artists work in a figurative and abstract way at the same time, creating a hybrid or ‘third’ way of painting,” says Simonetta Fraquelli, the independent curator who has co-organised the Philadelphia show with Claire Bernardi of the Musée d’Orsay.
De Kooning looked at Soutine throughout his career, especially during the early 1950s when working on his Woman series. In 1952 he and his wife, the painter Elaine de Kooning, visited the Barnes to see the 16 Soutines on permanent view. “In one room there were two long walls, one all Matisse and the other all Soutine,” De Kooning later recalled. “The Soutines had a glow that came from within the paintings—it was another kind of light.” Nearly 70 years later, a Barnes wall of Soutines will be offset by a wall of De Koonings, illuminating each other.
• Soutine/De Kooning: Conversations in Paint, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, 7 March-8 August