De Kooning Is De King at MOMA

Two Voice critics tackle the painter's big retrospective

Baker: It gave him the visual grit to push his abstractions. It's why I can never find the offense in those paintings—they're formal devices.

Schwendener: But women might not want to be formal devices. Today, with John Currin or Richard Prince, because they're trying specifically to be politically incorrect and take that as an artistic stance, that's more problematic.

Baker: That's frat-boy thinking, and although Currin can certainly paint, Prince's beaver-shot knockoffs of de Kooning are just overblown titillations.

Welcome, Dutchman! De Kooning's Pink Angels, c. 1945
© 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Welcome, Dutchman! De Kooning's Pink Angels, c. 1945

Schwendener: By opening with two figure paintings—one of them is Seated Figure (Classic Male) [1941/43]—MOMA is making the argument that this is very much a figurative painter. Wouldn't it be better to open with one of those alongside something more Attic-like? Plus, this show is definitely overhung. If there's an argument for painting, it's that we want to slow down and look at it, but the walls are crowded.

Baker: I would definitely have liked to see one of those early enamel-on-white-paper paintings—which are all about figure and ground relationships—paired with one of the very late paintings, where he's suffering from Alzheimer's. The last works have the contours and gradations that we're used to, but he carves those initial broad brushstrokes down with flat white paint. It's as if he's taking the blank canvas that every painter has to face and pulling it up from the depths, making it the subject—it's becoming everything, as if he's consciously taking a step into the light. It's where the gut is every bit as intelligent as the brain.

Schwendener: Exactly. And that's what painting is about.

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