In case you don’t like or understand modern art — but you wish the opposite were true — I have just the show for you. It’s all by (and often about) Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), an artist whose paintings almost speak for themselves while also being beautiful.
Yes, yes, this is a busy time. But you have through Jan. 9 to get to New York – where you probably want to see the festive colors and lights anyway – to experience something much more exciting that won’t happen every year: “de Kooning: A Retrospective,” an exhibition of the artist’s work over nearly seven decades.
In gallery after gallery taking up the entire sixth floor of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), nearly 200 works are on view. Most are wall pieces and most of those are paintings and most of them are gorgeous. There are also drawings and prints, as well as sculptures. But the paintings rule!
An artist who often included both abstract and figurative elements in his paintings, de Kooning, born in the Netherlands, also frequently used colors that catch the eye and encourage further looking.
Not all the paintings include his delicious pinks and orchids, surprising aquas or slashing blues. Even his black on white and white on black works are clearly part of the family, as are all his takes on women. His late-in-life pieces feature simpler seeming ribbons of reds, yellows and blues with whites.
Altogether, de Kooning’s work can be much more “accessible” than that of many modernists, including other “abstract expressionists.” Taking nothing away from his seriousness of purpose, de Kooning made modern art that’s easier to like – and therefore easier to keep looking at, wondering at, starting to understand.
When you go to MoMA, here’s an unorthodox way to visit this exhibition. First, don’t lollygag on your way to the sixth floor, but go directly there – you’ve come to see de Kooning, so get to him while you’re fresh and before the crowds gather.
Don’t use the audio aid that’s available. This show is for your eyes. In one room after another, start by reading the big wall sign telling about the period in the artist’s life – only for as long as it holds your attention. Then get an overview by scanning the paintings hanging there. Walk to each piece that “calls to you.” It may be through colors, or size, or patterns – it makes no difference.
Stand back from the painting and let your eyes travel around its surface. Look at how parts connect, under or over or next to each other. Then look closely at the painting’s surface, which is anything but flat. There’s a lot going on there: sweeping brush strokes, globs of paint, drips and wrinkles and mixes of color.