At Work in the Fields of de Kooning

"Willem de Kooning: In Process"

While these pieces are far from first-rate de Kooning, they're fascinating for the way they take us so directly into the creative processes alluded to in the exhibition's title. Consider the richly textured XIII, from around 1970, which you encounter to the immediate right near the beginning of the show. It's a gorgeous throwback to abstract expressionism's heady early days, when de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and their cohorts were radically reconfiguring the face of American art. With its warm, inviting golds and browns, the piece stands on its own merits, but it's even more remarkable when you compare it with its nearby companion, XIV, a charcoal and oil on vellum that's mounted under glass in a freestanding frame, making it visible from both sides.

The latter piece is essentially a tracing de Kooning made by laying the vellum directly onto the still-wet oil of XIII and capturing its basic compositional elements in charcoal. The previously mentioned Woman in a Garden also has its offspring, a smaller piece called Head Still Life that de Kooning made by lifting a portion of the image and inverting it. It's a technique the artist used again and again during this period, and it makes it clear that he thought of his work not so much as individual pieces but as interconnected segments of a continuum, with each piece linked to both its predecessors and its successors.

Some of de Kooning's pieces, like this untitled work from 1986, reveal the "process" behind the show's title
Some of de Kooning's pieces, like this untitled work from 1986, reveal the "process" behind the show's title

And that, finally, is how "In Process" should be taken. If you look at the exhibition in isolation, its shortcomings are obvious, sometimes glaringly so. But if you take it in the context of de Kooning's long, extraordinary career -- as the final stages of an extended process -- its imperfections make perfect sense.

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