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DEPTH CHARGE

DESPITE THE UNDIMINISHED reputation of Willem de Kooning as one of America’s preeminent gestural abstractionists, more than a quarter century has passed since his work was last afforded a comprehensive museum survey in the US. This fall, the Museum of Modern Art in New York brings that interregnum to a close with “De Kooning: A Retrospective,” organized by the institution’s curator emeritus, John Elderfield. In anticipation of the exhibition’s opening in September, artist Terry Winters spoke with Elderfield about de Kooning and the important lessons of abstraction still to be gleaned from the painter’s transformative work.

Willem de Kooning, Orestes, 1947, enamel and paper on board, 24 1/8 x 36 1/8.

TERRY WINTERS: How do you begin putting together an exhibition like this—what’s the strategy? Do you start with a certain set of questions or concerns?

JOHN ELDERFIELD: Yes, but the questions also come along as you’re working. In fact, at a certain point, they just start rolling down the hill at you. And certainly some of the motivation is simply feeling that it’s an exhibition I’d like to see myself.

The past twenty years have brought us major retrospectives of the work of Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, but the last de Kooning retrospective was back in 1983, at the Whitney. At the outset, I wanted to get a sense of de Kooning’s artistic practice as it extended between types of work. As I began my research, though, I found myself more and more interested in trying to fathom the big breaks or, perhaps better, trying to figure out whether there even were big

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