‘De Kooning: Five Decades’
“When he was in the mood, Willem de Kooning had a gift for titles both memorable and unconfining,” writes Stephen Ellis. “Gotham News, Suburb in Havana, and (my favorite) Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point provide catchy handles for images as elusive as they are beautiful. Alas, he wasn’t always in the mood; he stuck Composition (1955)—one of the most glorious of all Abstract Expressionist paintings—with one of his least imaginative titles. It is on loan from the Guggenheim for the smartly curated small retrospective at the Mnuchin Gallery’s graceful 1914 townhouse.
“In 1955, de Kooning was at one of several artistic peaks. By then, he had completely internalized his synthesis of Cubist structure, including Picasso’s Surrealist variations, with Pollock’s innovative materials and expansive scale. Soutine had shown de Kooning how to charge his refined line with a juicier, more muscular gesture. For twenty years, he’d experimented with the stuff of paint—using commercial house paints, additives like plaster, sand, and charcoal, and every gradation of viscosity from watery washes to lava-like accretions of pigment. This arsenal of effects was now at his spontaneous command and he unleashed it in a series of ambitious abstract paintings that evoke cityscapes or highway vistas. In Composition, the addition of sand or other grit to the paint creates a drag against the canvas, shifting the emphasis from the speed of the stroke to its driving force. It’s as if his hand accelerated hard in first gear in thick, rough passages and then shifted in a heartbeat to fourth, leaping ahead as the suddenly liquid paint splashed across the surface. If you’re not interested in this kind of wild ride, de Kooning isn’t for you.
Composition is like a Cubist painting smashed up with a crowbar. Wedges of hot red and aquamarine collide and clatter apart flinging off shards of yellow and splinters of black and white. This distinctive palette, which recurs in his paintings and drawings from the early 1940s until the late 1950s, is strongly reminiscent of the Roman frescoes in the Met that de Kooning admired as a young artist in the 1930s. Characteristically eliding past and present, even as he evokes Pompeii, he simultaneously channels the Gypsy Red and Cascade Green of a 1950s Chevy Corvette. This egalitarian embrace of both art history and pop culture wasn’t lost on John Chamberlain, Robert Rauschenberg, or Andy Warhol, all of whom owe a debt to de Kooning.”
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