Originally created 05/03/04

Exhibit traces de Kooning's stylistic transformation

NEW YORK -- The broad pastel strokes of Willem de Kooning's later works convey a vibrancy and vitality typical of an artist in the prime of his career.

" 1/8 no title 3/8 ," a 1988 oil on canvas, draws from de Kooning's paintings of the 1940s and 1960s, but stands on its own as an explosive expression of abstraction. It is featured in "Willem de Kooning: A Centennial Exhibition," at Gagosian Gallery. The show opened on April 24, which would have been the artist's 100th birthday, and runs through June 19.

The exhibition, which highlights five decades of de Kooning's career with 36 paintings, was curated by David Whitney, who has written books on Jasper Johns, David Salle and Andy Warhol.

Four paintings from 1988 - the last year featured in this show - are meant to be seen first, allowing the viewer to witness and explore de Kooning's stylistic transition from 1946.

"It's a room that glitters and has an exuberance and shows an exquisite master at work," Ealan Wingate, gallery director, said. The paintings from 1988 "have an idiosyncratic muscularity."

Gagosian's Kara Vander Weg points out that the artist's works from the 1980s are displayed in a large room, with ample light, much like the studio where they were created.

One of the earliest works on display, "Orestes," a 1947, 24-inch-by-36-inch, paper collage with enamel on board, reveals de Kooning's surrealist influence. The black and white collage sold for $13.2 million at Sotheby's auction house in New York in 2002.

The black and white paintings are both a departure from de Kooning's earlier work, which relied heavily on color, and a move toward abstraction.

"Untitled XIX," an oil on canvas from 1977, highlights de Kooning's gestural work of the 1970s. The bold frenzy of primary colors is achieved through layering paint, then manipulating the canvas by smearing or pressing newspaper onto it.

"There's this fantastic outpouring in the 1970s when his painting just becomes so extreme," said Wingate.

In "Suburb in Havana," an 80-inch-by-70-inch oil on canvas from 1958, spontaneous, broad, earth-toned diagonal brushstrokes reach into space toward a deep, blue mass that could be either a sky or a body of water. The well-known painting is among a series of abstract landscapes from the late 1950s and early '60s in which de Kooning abandons the human form.

"Notable in such works is the significant reduction of forms and a simplification of the palate," Vander Weg said. "De Kooning used broad sweeping gestures, instead, to represent the environment. De Kooning often spoke about how his paintings represented a 'glimpse' of the world around him - essentially a tiny detail or impression blown up on the canvas - and works such as this one convey that idea."

The exhibition, which has been organized with the full support of the de Kooning Trust and Foundation, features loans from private collections as well as museums, including The Museum of Modern Art, the Princeton University Art Museum and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Born in Holland in 1904, de Kooning was the son of a wine and beer distributor and a barmaid. His parents divorced when he was 5 and his father got custody, but his mother took him away by force.

He moved to the United States in 1926 and worked as a house painter in Hoboken, N.J., before moving to New York, where he befriended artists and critics such as Arshile Gorky, Thomas Hess, Robert Motherwell and Harold Rosenberg.

De Kooning, who died in 1997 at age 93, is now ranked as a foremost member of the 20th century's first distinctively American group of artists: the abstract expressionists.

A separate exhibition, "Garden in Delft: Willem de Kooning Landscapes 1928-88," opens May 3, and runs through June 26, at Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery in New York.

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