Exhibition Reviews: Willem De Kooning

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Judith Zilczer, Lynne Cooke, and Susan Lake. Willem de Kooning from the Hirshhorn Museum Collection. Washington, D.C.: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution with Rizzoli International Publications, 1993. 218 pp.: 60 color ills., 76 b/w. $60.00; $29.95 paper

Exhibition schedule: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., October 21, 1993-January 9, 1994; Fundacio "la Caixa," Centre Cultural, Barcelona, February 17-April 3, 1994; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, September 13-November 27, 1994; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, December 10, 1994-February 19, 1995; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, March 19-May 28, 1995

Marla Prather, David Sylvester, and Richard Shiff. Willem de Kooning: Paintings. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art with Yale University Press, 1994. 231 pp.; 89 colors ills., 54 b/w. $55.00; $25.00 paper

Exhibition schedule: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., May 8-September 5, 1994; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, October 11, 1994-January 8, 1995; Tate Gallery, London, February 15-May 7, 1995

The 1993-94 exhibition season in Washington, D.C., featured two major exhibitions of the work of Willem de Kooning, organized, respectively, by the Hirshhorn Museum and the National Gallery of Art to mark the painter's ninetieth birthday. After a career that spanned almost six decades, de Kooning, reportedly suffering from Alzheimer's disease, stopped painting around 1990. Thus, the ninetieth anniversary of his birth offered the perfect opportunity to review and assess his life's work in a full-scale retrospective. Neither the Hirshhorn nor the National Gallery was able to take advantage of this opportunity, however. The National Gallery is prevented by its charter from presenting retrospectives of living artists, so the organizers of its show--English critic David Sylvester, Tate Gallery director Nicholas Serota, and National Gallery curator Marla Prather--opted to focus exclusively on de Kooning's paintings of the period 1938-86, excluding his drawings, sculptures, and prints, his earliest abstract canvases, and his very last paintings, executed after 1986. Hirshhorn curator Judith Zilczer drew her show exclusively from the Hirshhorn's own collection of de Kooning's paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints--the most extensive in a public institution but still not comprehensive, lacking any canvases from the second half of the 1950s, when de Kooning produced his boldest "action paintings," or from 1975-79, when the artist painted the dense and colorful abstract canvases increasingly recognized as among his best pictures.

Zilczer chose to display fifty-two de Koonings from the Hirshhorn museum's seventy-one.(1) Except for the last two canvases in the exhibition, the large abstract paintings Untitled III (1981) and Untitled (1985; fig. 3), all the pieces on view were acquired by museum founder Joseph H. Hirshhorn.(Figure 3 omitted) Despite Zilczer's admirable attempt to mold the Hirshhorn collection into a survey of de Kooning's career, the show ultimately revealed less about de Kooning's personal artistic development than it did about Hirshhorn's particular taste in de Kooning. While the collector did not entirely neglect de Kooning's abstract works--he bought the small black-and-white enamel abstraction Zurich (1947), the expansive Untitled (May 1962), and several minor abstract works on paper--he responded most warmly to de Kooning's prolonged engagement with the human figure. Many of the most important works that Hirshhorn acquired represent the anonymous, universal woman who animated de Kooning's aesthetic quest for over thirty years, appearing first in a Picassoid incarnation in Queen of Hearts (1943-46); next in explosively painterly manifestations such as Woman (1948; fig. 1) and Two Women in the Country (1954); later in juicy oils like Two Standing Women (1963-64) and Woman, Sag Harbor (1964); and finally in succulent bronze sculptures such as Seated Woman on a Bench (1972). …