Two views of de Kooning's subtle nuances

January 26, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

It's probably safe to say that Elaine de Kooning is as well represented in Baltimore right now as she ever has been anywhere. There are 76 paintings, drawings and pastels dating from 1942, when she was 24, to 1988, the year before she died, in two shows: a retrospective at the Maryland Institute College of Art and an exhibit at the C. Grimaldis Gallery.

They are nicely complementary. The retrospective covers her entire career, while the Grimaldis show concentrates primarily on her last and best period -- the works of the mid- to late 1980s based on her visit to the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux, France.

But E de K (as she signed herself) was not, as might be thought, an artist who kept getting better all her life, building toward a final crowning achievement. On the contrary, she is revealed in this in-depth look as an artist of subtlety and nuance at heart, who realized her potential most fully at both ends of her career but for too long in the middle of it tried to be something she wasn't -- big, bold and aggressive.

How and to what extent she was influenced by her marriage to one of the world's most famous artists, Willem de Kooning, cannot be known precisely, and in the end it doesn't matter. Her work exists, and such speculations can't change it. However, it's interesting to note that, according to the retrospective's catalog, she married de Kooning in 1943, separated from him in 1957 and reconciled with him in 1975. Most of the best works in these shows were done during or near the years they were together -- but apparently not for the obvious reason.

In the work of the 1950s and the 1980s, the most satisfying periods, she shows the least influence of Willem de Kooning. His style, especially its frenzied energy suggesting violence, seems to have had the greatest effect on her works of the 1960s and 1970s. It is as though when they were apart, she felt it necessary to compete with him on his own terms, but when they were together, she was free to be herself.

There are certainly differences between the early and late periods, but there are similarities, too. In paintings such as "Event in a Warehouse" (1953-1954, at the Institute) and "Conrad #3" (1953, at Grimaldis), the brush stroke tends to be rhythmic and the paint is laid on with relative thickness, but the palette is comparatively narrow and deep-toned. "Warehouse" is notable for its browns and reds, whereas "Conrad," nominally a portrait, is just as much a study in greens and grays and buffs.

The late cave-painting works are lighter in tone and feeling, and lyrical as opposed to rhythmic. But here also, in such works as "Green Gold Wall (Cave #45)" (1985, at the Institute) or "Orange Grotto (Cave #17)" (1984, at Grimaldis), washes of color play variations on a theme, with light breathing through in places -- especially in "Green Gold Wall," in an almost romantic, Turneresque way.

Her drawings from this series, done in sumi ink on paper, are even more subtle than the paintings. In such works as "Po Hai Grotto (Cave #148)" (1988, Institute) and "Ascending Wall (Cave #163)" (1988, Grimaldis), she achieves her ultimate elegance of understatement in works that prefer implication to outright declaration.

Contrast with these early and late works paintings such as "California" (1960, Institute), "Standing Bull" (1960, Institute) or "Basketball #40" (1977, Institute), and one sees evidence of bluster, of overblown emptiness, of hollow struggle toward something un-genuine. There are few paintings from the 1960s in either show, but portraits such as "JFK #21" (1963, Institute) and "Merce Cunningham" (1962, Institute) are among the least successful in the show -- except for the portrait "Pele" (1982, Institute), which was a commission and looks it.

The "Bacchus" series of the late 1970s and early 1980s, including "Bacchus #1" (1976, Institute), Bacchus #10" (1980, Grimaldis) and "Bacchus #19-O" (1983, Institute) occupy an interesting position in the artist's development. They are transitional, and show her moving away from the more aggressive aspects of her middle work and toward the beauty of the "Caves." But they are somewhat tentative, and can end up either confused or weak.

What a pity that when Elaine de Kooning finally achieved her finest work with the "Caves" in the mid-1980s, she had only a few years to live. She died in 1989 at age 70. On the other hand, how wonderful for an artist to be at her best at the end.

Her last works look as though they were made by a happy and fulfilled artist, and they certainly have the capacity to make their viewers happy.

ELAINE DE KOONING

Where: Maryland Institute College of Art, Mount Royal Station Building, Mount Royal Avenue and Cathedral Street.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays (till 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays); noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 21.

Call: (410) 225-2300.

Where: C. Grimaldis Gallery, 1006 Morton St.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 27.

Call: (410) 539-1080.

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