Topics in American Art since 1945

By Lawrence Alloway | Go to book overview
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WILLEM DE KOONING

It is a curious fact of the New York art world that artists in their 30s don't mind having retrospectives (Rauschenberg and Johns, for instance, at the Jewish Museum), but older artists are very sensitive about it. Exhibitions of artists in the 1903-13 age group, that is to say the men usually called "Abstract Expressionists," are subject to endless qualification. Museum shows of these artists, no matter how extensive, have to be presented as tentative and partial samples of the iceberg, to protect the artist from feelings of completion and exhaustion. The de Kooning exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art [March, 1969] lists 147 items in the catalogue and covers thirty years, but there is the standard warning not to take all this as a retrospective. It is, to quote the catalogue, just "a look at the artist in mid-career." Is "mid‐ career" honestly the right term for an artist who will be 65 next month?

De Kooning's presence at the Modern, whether one regards the show as a retrospective (which is my inclination) or a glimpse, is the welcome realization of a lengthy project. New York museums have been overusing guest directors for their exhibitions, inviting outside people to arrange shows well within the capacity of their curatorial staffs. However, inviting Thomas B. Hess, editor of Art News, to do the de Kooning show was absolutely correct; he not only knows more about the artist than anybody else; he is the only person likely to have persuaded the artist to go through with a big museum show (the Modern had been trying for years). Hess's modesty in the acknowledgements and introduction to his catalogue [Willem de Kooning (New York, 1968)] should not deceive anybody as to the centrality of his role.

The catalogue is rich in information about the artist, his work, his life style, his milieu. In a text that has space for the artist's relation with his dealers, however, I miss any discussion of de Kooning's immense influence on young artists in the 1950s. This was either a power play on his part, or a toleration of the role of king when it was pressed on him; whichever it was it calls for discussion. The other lacuna is that Hess is less precise about the flattening of de Kooning's forms in the

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SOURCE: From The Nation (March 24, 1969), 380-381.

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