Abstract Expressionism fans and admirers of Willem de Kooning have a chance to see the first full-scale retrospective of his work in some three decades, which opened on Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. The show, which marks the first time an exhibit has taken up an entire floor of MoMA’s new building, contains close to 200 works spanning about 70 years.
While de Kooning, who died at age 92 in 1997, may be thought of here as an East Hampton artist, his full-time move to Springs in the ’60s was preceded by years in New York City and a youth spent in his native Netherlands.
The exhibit begins as early as 1916 with two still lifes, academic works executed in Holland before a rushed move to the United States in 1926 as a stowaway aboard a coal freighter.
According to his biographers Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, de Kooning enrolled as a boy in an eight-year program at the academy in Rotterdam, but felt he had learned as much about technique as he wanted to after a few years, having become aware of modernists such as his countryman Piet Mondrian. He often credited his classical training, however, with enabling him to make abstractions of his subject matter.
The exhibit continues to 1987, covering every style, medium, and subject matter the prolific and versatile artist worked with. MoMA has brought together such watershed works as “Pink Angels,” circa 1945, a work that distills Pablo Picasso through Arshile Gorky; “Excavation” from 1950, a busy, oddly linear jumble of all-over painting, and his Woman series from 1950 to 1953.
Black-and-white compositions of the late ’40s, urban abstractions of the ’50s, figurative compositions from the ’60s, and large gestural nonobjective paintings of the ’70s are all represented. There is also a theatrical backdrop the artist painted in 1946 called “Labyrinth.”
John Elderfield, chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture at the museum, curated the exhibit, immersed himself in the artist’s work for several years before curating this show.
It is presented in chronological order but marries works that have not been seen together in decades. There are very early experiments in abstraction from de Kooning’s New York arrival and then more fully abstracted works in the biomorphic style of Miro and Picasso, with some vaguely Surrealistic compositions. In the 1940s a series of seated figures, alternating between degrees of realism and abstraction, comprises the first Woman series.
This series, which led to two others including the most important period of 1950-1953, may be the one for which the artist is most remembered, but MoMA notes that it was the black-and-white series of the late ’40s that established his Abstract Expressionist bona fides. A teaching gig at Black Mountain College in Asheville, N.C., during the summer of 1948 inspired the artist to reintroduce color.
The breakthrough Woman series, which began with his early work on “Woman I” (1950-1952), freed the artist from his thrall to Cubism and inspired works so painterly and improvisational that a couple were finished before he could complete the first one. These works prompted viewers to decry their apparent misogyny and the artist’s abandonment of pure abstraction.
Mr. Elderfield noted in a press release that “the exhibition demonstrates how de Kooning never followed any single, narrowly defined path, repudiating the modernist view of art as developing toward an increasingly refined, all-over abstraction to find continuity in continual change.”
By the time de Kooning came to Springs in the 1960s, his style had changed again to colorful abstract landscapes that resembled blocky spills of paint, still focused on the hand and brushstroke. Indeed, the works at MoMA show a constant shift back and forth between color and its absence and subject matter.
The first work in the show that relates directly to the artist’s new surroundings is “Rosy Fingered Dawn at Louse Point,” a pretty hilarious title for a painting now in the Stedelijk Museum of Amsterdam. Before that are drawings of clamdiggers and following is an evocation of a “Woman in a Rowboat,” from 1964. There is a Sag Harbor Woman painting and two Montauk landscapes from the ’60s as well. Throughout all of his time here, the effect of the vaunted East End light is unmistakable.
And there is more, and more and more to follow: paintings, sculptures, lithographs. In the ’80s, the last phase of his creative inspiration, de Kooning gave up the heavy brushstroke to glaze his work with bold transparent colors, which gave way more and more to white. It is at this point that the artist begins to slow down, coinciding with failing health and dementia. He still manages to simplify his painting process to what the museum calls “drawn paintings in a limited color range that nonetheless evoke constantly changing, swelling, and contracting spaces.”
The exhibit will remain on view through Jan. 9,