John Elderfield presents on Willem de Kooning
Published: Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Updated: Monday, April 23, 2012 22:04
The Lee Gallery in the Rose Art Museum was filled to capacity on Monday, April 2 for a lesson by John Elderfield on premier Abstract Expressionist painter Willem de Kooning. Elderfield, the Chief Curator emeritus of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, has been studying de Kooning’s work for the last six years, most recently acting as the curator for MoMA’s exhibit, “de Kooning: A Retrospective.”
During his talk, Elderfield presented a slideshow on de Kooning titled, “The Artist Who Wouldn’t Stand Still.” Elderfield’s presentation, dedicated to covering seven decades of de Kooning’s career, highlighted his constantly shifting approach to painting. “I want to address issues of continuity and change within de Kooning’s work,” Elderfield explained. Elderfield went through the chronology of de Kooning’s artistic development, starting with his early paintings (1904-1937) and ending with his late paintings (1979-1997). Elderfield selected works that embodied the themes and techniques that de Kooning used at specific periods in his career.
De Kooning, born in the Netherlands in 1904, was always searching for new techniques and a new means of expression in his paintings. He arrived in New York as an illegal immigrant, where he took jobs in commercial art and started to find a community of artists. At this point, Elderfield noted, “[de Kooning] had a beautiful but conservative early modern style.” But his style changed over the years. As de Kooning encountered works by Picasso, Stuart Davis and Arshile Gorky, he developed a more mature technique, which Elderfield described as “a blend of geometric abstractions and abstract surrealism.”
De Kooning eventually strayed from commercial painting and started to focus on fine art. In 1945, “de Kooning thr[ew] away everything he ha[d] done before and ma[de] a different kind of picture,” explained Elderfield. In this new type of painting, de Kooning fused together abstraction and figuration. This is illustrated in his oil and charcoal on canvas work, “Pink Angels,” (1945) the final painting in his first series dedicated to images of women. De Kooning rejected traditional representation of the human body and painted more abstractly, using forms that merely suggest the presence of figures.
Yet it was “Painting 1948,” one of the many black and white pictures in de Kooning’s first solo exhibition, that really propelled him to public attention. Just five years later, de Kooning exhibited his third “Woman” series to critical acclaim. When people accused these paintings of being misogynistic, de Kooning responded, “[You’re] all telling me what I cannot have in my pictures.” Elderfield explained that de Kooning’s motto was “Don’t be afraid of disappointing people.”
Moreover, de Kooning had always admired old Chinese artists who changed their names once they became famous as a way to protect their freedom. Elderfield explained that this centered on “an attitude towards oneself. One has to be willing to move into uncertainty.” Elderfield quoted the lyrics to Patti Smith’s “My Blakean Year” to encapsulate de Kooning’s artistic journey: “so disposed/ toward a mission yet unclear.” It is hard to pinpoint de Kooning’s “mission,” because he was always working towards “uncertainty” by experimenting with different methods of expression. Perhaps it is this permeating sense of experimentation and innovation that actually ties de Kooning’s works together.