Texture Links De Kooning's Myriad Subjects

Washington's National Gallery of Art exhibits 76 works by a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism

THREE things are striking about Willem de Kooning paintings. First, the colors: furious strokes and turbulent slashes of red, blue, green, black.

Second, the texture: great oily glops and drips, grooves, and brush marks that draw the viewer closer and closer, then to the side to see the three-dimensionality of the painting.

And last, the evolution of his style: the changes in focus, texture, and palette over nearly 50 years of work.

``Willem de Kooning: Paintings'' at the Smithsonian's National Gallery of Art is a collection of 76 of the artist's major works. De Kooning is considered one of the most influential American painters of this century and a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism. The artist freely moved between figure and abstract painting, changing his focus throughout his career and often blurring the line between the two.

De Kooning was born in 1904 in Rotterdam, where he attended the city's Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques. Though he emigrated to the United States in 1926, his training in and memories of the Netherlands influenced his entire career.

Before 1936, when de Kooning committed to working primarily as an artist, he supported himself by painting houses and doing odd jobs. As he made the transition from being a ``Sunday painter'' (as he called it), he worked as a commercial artist on the side.

In the early part of his career, de Kooning did both abstract compositions and figure painting. De Kooning was influenced by Pablo Picasso and his friend and contemporary, Arshile Gorky.

As de Kooning developed his style, he began to concentrate on figures, including a series of paintings of men. Like Gorky, de Kooning sanded and scraped these paintings, exposing buried layers of paint and creating a smooth surface.

De Kooning is probably most noted for his paintings of women, which he began after meeting Elaine, who later became his wife, in the late 1930s. He created garish-looking women by processes of adding and subtracting, scraping and layering, peeling off and tacking on. Elaine later recalled Willem's comment that before he met her, his paintings were ``quiet and serene. Then they became turbulent.''

In the 1940s, de Kooning began to gain recognition, especially after his first solo exhibition of black-and-white paintings at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York.

Two of de Kooning's most famous works are from this period: ``Attic'' and ``Excavation,'' predominately white canvases with black curves and slashes, with bits of color tucked in. De Kooning commented in 1951, ``I'm not interested in `abstracting' or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line, and color. I paint the way I do because I can keep putting more and more things in - like drama, pain, anger, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space.''

De Kooning's ``more and more things'' challenge the viewer to decipher cohesive figures, objects, and landscapes. Anatomy is often indecipherable: too many limbs and at the wrong angles, teeth becoming necklaces. The work seems to reflect de Kooning's way of working. Paintings would metamorphose many times in the process of layering and scraping. De Kooning seemed most at ease with constant change, and he strove to capture fleeting impressions.

De Kooning relished the texture of his paint, which he mixed himself for a unique consistency and appearance. ``I like a nice, juicy, greasy surface,'' de Kooning has said. Many of the surfaces are uneven: rippled, splattered, scraped, and gouged. The canvases appear wet and shiny, as if de Kooning was not yet finished.

Although he did not display any of his paintings of women at the Egan Gallery show, he was at work on these figures, becoming more involved with figure painting again after the completion of ``Excavation.'' In 1953, de Kooning displayed ``Paintings on the Theme of Woman.'' A number of de Kooning's ``Women'' paintings wear toothy, bug-eyed expressions, and are large, imposing, aggressive-looking figures.

These depictions evoked strong reactions from both artists and critics, prompting discussions of contemporary figure painting's viability. Some artists, including Jackson Pollock, felt that de Kooning was betraying abstract art. While some critics defended de Kooning's work, others questioned de Kooning's attitude toward women.

De Kooning seemed almost baffled by the response to his art.

Marla Prather, curator of the exhibition, writes: ``De Kooning's reactions over the years to what he perceived as accusations of misogyny express dismay and range from defensive to apologetic, from forthright to disingenuous.

``Since the beginning, he disavowed any critical sociological content in the paintings and claimed that his views were not determined by gender difference.''

By the end of the 1950s, de Kooning had taken a new direction in his work, turning away from urban themes and figures. His paintings became more simple, with broader, wider brushstrokes and great swipes of color. ``Most of de Kooning's paintings from this period record sensations the artist associated with a particular season or place,'' Prather explains.

Eventually, de Kooning tired of New York City and built a home and studio on Long Island in East Hampton in the mid-1960s. He said of the new environment: ``The dunes and all that water reminded me of Holland. Who knows, perhaps unconsciously that's what made me want to settle here.''

Once there, he began painting women again: ``I can't get away from the woman. Wherever I look, I find her,'' he was quoted as saying. Influenced by his new setting, the women are softer-looking, bathed in water and light.

De Kooning's surroundings have also affected his more recent shift toward an atmosphere of serenity in his paintings: sparse white canvases with twisting and flowing ribbons of color.

* ``Willem de Kooning: Paintings'' will be on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington until Sept. 5. The exhibition will then travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (Oct. 11 to Jan. 8, 1995) and the Tate Gallery in London (Feb. 16 to May 7 1995).

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