“Willem de Kooning: Garden in Delft” at Mitchell-Innes & Nash

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Willem de Kooning, Untitled (The Cow Jumps Over the Moon) (1937-38), oil on masonite, 20-1/2″ x 36″; courtesy the Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum

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The thematic conceit of Willem de Kooning: Garden in Delft , a career-spanning exhibition of landscape-inspired paintings at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, would be a lot more convincing if the first canvas you encountered wasn’t Untitled (Big Red) (1988). The picture evokes natural phenomenon, I suppose, but it’s ambiguous enough in structure, form and palette to allude to any number of motifs–still life, say, or portraiture, perhaps an architectural interior.

I’ve got an uneasy feeling that the inclusion of Untitled (Big Red) has less to do with how well it jibes with the exhibition’s theme and more with it being one of de Kooning’s “Alzheimer” paintings, as his late works have come to be known. The big question that dogs these paintings is how active a hand de Kooning had in their making. It’s a can of worms a lot of people don’t want to open, let alone acknowledge; the same goes for the quality of the pictures. In fact, it’s more politic to extol de Kooning’s great late style than to point out that the pictures are less than great.

Were de Kooning (1904-1997) of sound health in 1988, would he have let a painting as meandering and dull as Untitled (Big Red) out of his studio? I’d like to believe not. I suspect that Mitchell-Innes & Nash thought the same thing, and that’s why they put it in the company of knockouts like Bolton Landing (1957), two irresistible gouache miniatures from the late 30′s and Untitled (The Cow Jumps Over the Moon) (1937-38). It serves to bolster the fantasy that the Alzheimer pictures are of a piece with the rest of the oeuvre and, as such, defined by mastery and (ahem) worthy of investment.

If I may be allowed further conjecture, let me note that Untitled (The Cow Jumps Over the Moon) is the exhibition’s most exciting picture, largely because of its potential. Glancing off Miró, Picasso and Ingres as swiftly and seductively as the famed line that animates it, the painting offers an intriguingly contrary image: Its slippery embrace of narrative and provocative conflagration of representation and abstraction suggest a different de Kooning–more allusive, eccentric and poetic.

Don’t get me wrong: I wouldn’t trade an existing masterpiece as electric as Attic (1949) for the world or, at least, de Kooning’s chunk of it. Yet Untitled does prompt you to ask: Did this consummate talent realize his promise? Or did he miss the boat to destinations more complicated and strange?

© 2004 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 24, 2004 edition of The New York Observer.

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