Enough Already

Willem de  Kooning, 1982. Photographs by Linda McCartney.

Linda McCartney, Willem de Kooning (1982)

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How disappointing is the news that MOMA will be mounting a retrospective of work by Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) in the fall of 2011?  Sure, Attic (1949) and Excavation (1950) remain miracles of painterly finesse and masterpieces of American modernism–hell, masterpieces of modernism period. But notwithstanding a bracing painting here and there, de Kooning basically shot his artistic wad round about the time he submitted the female form to his patented brand of slash-and-burn cubism. After that, the slide into mannerism was fitful but precipitous, culminating in the “Alzheimer’s Paintings”, pictures whose lack of purpose and elasticity is heartbreaking to behold.

Every generation needs a refresher course in history, I suppose, and John Elderfield, MOMA’s Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting And Sculpture and organizer of the upcoming retrospective, has the eye and the acumen to pull a revelatory rabbit or two out of his hat. But there’s something so, well, boring about the choice of de Kooning as the subject of appraisal, reappraisal, whatever. There’s been no shortage of recent exhibitions dedicated to the Dutchman–Larry Gagosian mounted a handsome encomium a few years back–and you’d think the hometown crowd would have had its fill of New York School triumphalism and its usual suspects. Isn’t it time somebody questioned the standard historical narrative? Another iteration of the received wisdom, we don’t need.

George J. McNeil, Dingbat discoGeorge McNeil, Dingbat Disco (1982), oil, sand and twine on canvas, 56″ x 65″

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The most exciting thing about MOMA’s recent Abstract Expressionist New York exhibition was the gritty intensity of early Robert Motherwell, the show-stealing bravura of Alfred Leslie and the slow-burning intensity of Richard Pousette-Dart–that is to say, painters usually sloughed off as second- and third-tier players. Norman Bluhm is a problematic painter–so, too, are William Baziotes and Jack Tworkov–but, over the long haul, these not-so-usual suspects were more consistent, more flexible, more rigorous and more searching than de Kooning or, at least, post-1950 de Kooning. Can you imagine what a George McNeil retrospective at MOMA might look like? Neither can MOMA.That’s the problem and our loss.

© 2011 Mario Naves

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