Thanksgiving car traffic going into New York City is world class, and so it seems that all those people on the road were going to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) – just when we wanted to. So we waited in line outside on a brisk day in Manhattan for the privilege of getting into the building to be able to wait in line to buy a ticket. Then we waited in line to hang up our coats and before you knew it two hours had passed and the only art we glimpsed was a titanic sized Cy Twombly in the entry. I felt a heavy dose of dread in the bus station that was the MOMA that day. How did they ever spend so much money to get so little by way of public amenities for the museum-goer? We look in vain for a place to sit after waiting in line so long.
I only glance at the Diego Rivera mural on the way up to the sixth floor to see the retrospective of Willem DeKooning. The Rivera dovetails nicely with the social consciousness of the early DeKooning “portraits” of everyman, often dressed in ill-fitting clothes staring with distant looking eyes. I like the cool declaration of Elaine DeKooning drawn to icy perfection in a near-Ingres like graphite drawing near the entrance of the show. I went to see early DeKooning – before he commenced with his signature works. I was curious to see what revelations could be found in the earliest paintings. Could you really tell what he would become from the start?
The answer is yes, but you really must pay attention. Even though DeKooning would try a variety of strategies to derail his natural dexterity ( he draws sometimes with his eyes closed, or while watching television ) his artwork is all about the hand and the marks it makes. DeKooning’s art has little in the way of narrative, unless you think of the story being told is an analysis of the artist’s nervous system with all its characteristic ticks, jumps and jots.
In 1939 abstraction followed on the heels of the portraits, and the jump may have been precipitated by DeKooning’s interaction with painters Arshile Gorky and Stuart Davis, both of whom were working on organic or biomorphic forms in their influential art.
DeKooning spends part of the late 1940’s teaching at the progressive Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina. Tucked into the hill country of western North Carolina, Black Mountain would prove to be the spawning ground for a truly modern art movement that had far reaching effect in American cultural history. Although DeKooning was there for only a short while, something happened to his paintings that brought all of his energy together with a deep gravitas that still looks terrific today.
Paintings on canvas in black and white enamel may have been my favorite things among the early work in the show. For two or three years, DeKooning made the most of limited color, attached to severe shapes that knit together “Painting”, and “Dark Pond”, “Attic” from 1949, and “Excavation” from 1950. An instructive collage nearby was put together with cut out shapes and thumbtacks, and one can guess that this process helped hone the consummate draftsmanship that enables the artist to be so convincing.