Corcoran offers slice of de Kooning

Exhibit: The gallery gives only a taste of the artist, focusing on the end of his career.

May 09, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The popular image of abstract expressionists flinging paint onto their canvases in transports of creative frenzy is one of the enduring myths of modern art, but like most myths, it's mostly hokum.

Willem de Kooning, one of the seminal figures of the abstract expressionist movement of the late 1940s and '50s, was renowned for his spontaneous, gestural style and bravura improvisations.

Yet his pictures were actually carefully thought out and continually reworked through a prolonged process of reflection and intensive labor.

"Willem de Kooning: In Process" at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art sets out to examine the method behind the artist's creative madness. The show features 20 paintings and eight drawings by the abstract expressionist master, many of which have never been exhibited before.

This would be an ambitious project under any circumstances, but here the problem is complicated by the exhibition's relatively narrow range.

All of the works date from the early 1970s to the artist's final paintings in 1986 and 1987. Depending on your point of view, these were either years during which de Kooning produced his most profound works or the era in which his artistic decline became glaringly apparent.

By contrast, there is virtually nothing from the artist's breakthrough years spanning the late 1940s to the early 1960s, when he produced the great series of canvases that, along with those of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and their fellows of the New York School, defined abstract expressionism as the preeminent movement of post-war modernism.

As a result, the show offers some modest insights into de Kooning's working methods without ever really taking the full measure of his genius, which was undeniable. The late Clement Greenberg always insisted that only results count in art, but one can't help the suspicion that here method counts at least as much as results.

Unless, of course, you are inclined to view de Kooning's paintings of the 1970s as his greatest works. This is the implicit view taken by the Corcoran show, though no explicit argument is made for it, which seems strange since the merit of these works has long been a matter of debate.

Greenberg, one of the abstract expressionists' first and most persuasive champions, never quite reconciled himself to de Kooning's art after about 1960, when the artist closed his studio in New York and moved to Long Island's South Fork.

In his island studio, de Kooning's painting became looser and less sharply focused than his work of the 1950s. He was also drinking heavily, and it's often difficult to distinguish the stylistic changes that resulted from creative evolution from those produced by dissipation. By the 1970s, de Kooning's pictures had almost completely lost the energetic draughtsmanship and coherence of his earlier work. He was also gradually slipping into the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

In pictures like "Woman in a Garden" (1971), for example, the barely discernible figure of the title emerges out of a queasy tumult of pinks, reds, greens and ochers that appear to slip and slide over each other or ooze together crazily like the drippings of a melted candle.

Incredibly, de Kooning managed to make tracings of these paintings, which resemble a child's finger-paint mess, on vellum paper and then transfer parts of the recovered images onto new canvases as the basis for completely different works. The Corcoran show documents several instances of this procedure, along with the new works that grew out of it.

By the beginning of the 1980s, de Kooning had stopped drinking, and his style again changed drastically. In his final phase, the paintings took on a spare, calligraphic quality characterized by sinuous intersecting lines of primary and complementary colors laid down against a plain white background. It is as if after 20 years of angst and mental confusion the artist had suddenly experienced a miraculous epiphany of calm, like the sudden clearing after a storm.

Those who champion the 1970s-era painting often do so on the grounds that through them de Kooning arrived at a new intensity in the use of paint to express primal bodily functions, and that the late paintings of the 1980s represent a fatal falling off of the artist's powers. I tend to a different view: that the 1960s and '70s represented a period of dissolution and decline, and that the late, calligraphic paintings were in fact a final burst of creativity despite the artist's diminished mental capacity.

The virtue of the Corcoran show lies in the fact that it invites such speculation while offering room for both interpretations.

De Kooning

Where: The Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. N.W., Washington

Hours: Wednesday through Monday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and until 9 p.m. Thursdays through May 28

Admission: $5 adults, $3 seniors, $1 students

Call: 202-639-1700

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