New York

Willem de Kooning

Gagosian Gallery (21)

Willem de Kooning once said, “I never made a Cubist painting.” I believe that this is an honest self-appraisal, but there are many who consider it inaccurate. The '50s and early '60s were dominated by formalist critics who grouped together most of that period's generation of abstract painters under the rubric of Abstract Expressionism and interpreted their work in terms of Cubist principles. Although there were many painters and sculptors who consciously aligned themselves with this school of thought, and with its ideology of progressive Modernism, de Kooning's approach to painting was and is very different.

De Kooning made the six paintings and one work on paper in this exhibition between 1955 and '61, a period when he was moving faster than anyone around him. Interchange, 1955, and The Time of the Fire, 1956, are superficially similar, with strokes and planes that bend, twist, or suddenly break off, but the second work extends this vocabulary to create a composition that is simultaneously airy and solid, atmospheric and firmly layered. The brushstrokes, brushy fields, and planes never add up to a design; they hover between disintegration and order. By 1957, when he painted February and Parc Rosenberg, de Kooning was using both a wide brush and a narrow brush to pull apart his sense of order in another way. The strokes veer off or twist back to suggest both structure and atmosphere. At the same time, he changed his palette from black, red, yellow, and white to blue, brown, yellow, and white. In fact, these years can be read as de Kooning's increasing involvement with yellow. Influenced by Rembrandt, de Kooning was trying to discover ways that paint might embody a glowing, nondirectional light without forsaking his interest in the relationship between body and place.

The accompanying catalogue demonstrates the continued hegemony of that period's formalist critics. The show's subtitle, “Abstract Landscapes, 1955–1963,” takes its cue not from the actual dates of the paintings but from Henry Geldzahler's reference in his catalogue essay to Thomas Hess' division of that period of de Kooning's career into the following “stages”: “Abstract Urban Landscape, 1955–58, Abstract Parkway Landscape, 1957–61, and Abstract Pastoral Landscape, 1961–63.” In this and other ways, Geldzahler's text adds to the barnacles of misperception surrounding de Kooning's work, thus continuing his own earlier reading of the artist's accomplishment, when he curated “New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940–1970” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The strongest artists are the ones whose vision is deeply rooted in the world of things and sensations. Just as he did in the 1950s, de Kooning still explores the range and shapes of sensations possible in time, which is always immediate and ongoing; in this regard, he extends Henri Bergson's notion of durée réelle (pure time). De Kooning, while he exemplifies this approach, redefines our understanding of it on his own terms. Instead of using spatial images to represent time, as in process art, he attempts to find ways to have us experience it.

John Yau