At Work in the Fields of de Kooning

"Willem de Kooning: In Process"

One of the most memorable images of Willem de Kooning has to be the 1986 portrait by the notorious Robert Mapplethorpe. It's a straightforward black-and-white photograph in which the artist, 82 years old at the time, looks directly into the camera with a benign half smile. He's wearing his familiar dark overalls and a slightly stained work shirt over a white Tshirt, making him look less like one of the most famous artists of the century and more like a Pennsylvania Dutch farmer weary from a long day in the fields.

The image is more apt than it might initially seem, for the Dutch-born de Kooning was nothing if not a workhorse, a tireless experimenter whose range of styles over the course of a six-decade career is nothing short of extraordinary. De Kooning's restlessness was such that he rarely dated his paintings, preferring to think of them as works in progress, and sometimes he signed them only when they were about to be packed off to their new owners. It's not so much that he didn't want to let them go but that he considered them unfinished.

That passion of de Kooning's for the process of making art, as opposed to the results, is at the heart of "Willem de Kooning: In Process,"a small but potent exhibition now at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale. The show consists of only 27 pieces, most of them large-scale oil canvases painted in the '70s and '80s, along with a handful of smaller drawings, including one dating back to the mid'60s.

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

The works of de Kooning's last years -- the years leading up to his being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease -- have been widely dismissed as the halfhearted efforts of a feeble, shaky old artist in rapid decline. (He died in 1997 at the age of 92.) This strikes me as more than a bit harsh. While only two or three of the pieces included here have anywhere near the power of de Kooning's landmark abstract expressionist paintings of the '40s and '50s, the show as a whole is a valuable reminder of de Kooning's place in 20th-century art. To call him the American Picasso, as some have, may be something of a stretch, but he's clearly a towering figure.

It's all a matter of context, and here the Museum of Art and guest curator Klaus Kertess have done an especially fine job of situating de Kooning. First of all they've done a beautiful job of staging: There's a logical flow to the show, which takes up most of the museum's ground floor, and they've ensured that the brightly illuminated works have been mounted on the stark white walls with plenty of the "breathing space" that's so crucial for big abstract expressionist art.

And at the rear of the exhibition they've set up a Resource Room, which is really just a long, narrow ledge with stools where visitors can sit and leaf through a handful of books on de Kooning. Several copies of the show's handsome hardback catalog are there, along with a Kertess book on de Kooning's drawings and Diane Waldman's exceptional 1988 volume, a comprehensive retrospective called simply Willem de Kooning. (There's also an adjacent area with a large video monitor playing footage of the artist at work in his studio, which neatly meshes with the show's stated theme, although the sound quality is so poor it's difficult to make out much of what he's saying.)

For once such supplementary materials are an asset to an exhibition rather than a distraction from it. Here they provide a frame for one of the longest, most prolific, and most varied careers in modern art. As you can easily establish from even the most casual perusal of these books, there's nothing in "In Process" to match, say, de Kooning's great figurative portraits of the early 1940s, when his affinities with Picasso and Arshile Gorky were most apparent.

But you can also just as easily see how many of the pieces in this show are inextricably linked to de Kooning's infamous Women series of the '40s and especially the '50s, when the portraits, with their anatomical distortions and sharklike smiles, became increasingly agitated. De Kooning has reclaimed both the subject matter and the gestural ferocity with which he handled the paint in some of these later paintings, most notably in a lush, vivid 1971 oil on paper on canvas called Woman in a Garden. (It's one of the few titled pieces in the show; the rest are identified by Roman numerals.)

Move on down along the wall, however, and de Kooning's '70s Women become more and more caricaturish, almost to the point of dissolving in self-parody. In the most extreme cases -- VI, VII, and VIII, for example -- the jumbled, dislocated features lend an addled, befuddled quality to their subjects, a far cry from those powerful, menacing Women paintings of the '50s. Their whimsicality is vaguely appealing but also a little forced.

For the debate-sparking paintings from the mid-'80s, de Kooning abandoned his dense compositions in favor of much cleaner, sparer lines and a drastically scaled-back palette that's often limited to red and blue on a white background. At first glance these pieces seem impossibly removed from the rest of de Kooning's output, but on closer inspection it's obvious that he has retained some of his biomorphic forms. And some of the pieces have not been created with the spontaneity they suggest but have been, in typical de Kooning manner, worked over again and again -- hovering ghostlike in the background are faint traces of earlier material that has subsequently been overlaid with white.

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.

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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