Bright Lights, Big Canvas, Old Paintings

Dutch abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning once remarked, “Whatever an artist’s personal feelings are, as soon as an artist fills a certain area of the canvas or circumscribes it, he becomes historical.” Indeed, it is de Kooning’s personal history that most noticeably informs The Last Beginning, a retrospective currently being exhibited at Gagosian Gallery until Oct. 27. The collection, curated by Klaus Kertess, showcases 23 works created during the 1980s. This time period—the last of de Kooning’s productive years before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s—is a point of contention for critics. Some maintain many of the works represent a realization of the artist’s goals, while others simply write off everything produced in the early ’80s as only indicative of his former greatness. However, the broad scope and diversity of the exhibition command the viewer to form an opinion on the matter.

The paintings dominate the minimalist interior of Gagosian. They are large (some 80 inches by 70 inches), and bright. Chaotic color patterns demand the viewer’s complete engagement with the work. Much of the work is evocative of 1940s-era De Kooning. The artist, just having finished his stint creating large-scale murals for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s public works programs in 1937, began producing abstract works using grays, blacks, and browns on visible white canvases. The neutral colors were indicative of the era’s economic constraints, colored paint being a luxury unavailable to de Kooning during the Great Depression.

Paintings at Gagosian such as “Untitled” (1983) exemplify this sparse, reserved color palette. The work’s deep, blood reds and atlantic blues resemble draped streamers on the Fourth of July. The lines of red and blue fade into gray borders before contacting one another, and the murky brown of space between the ribbons lend the painting complicated and interesting dimensions.

Another visible influence is that of Arshile Gorky, an epochal American abstract expressionist and mentor of de Kooning’s. Gorky’s pleasurable, vibrant colors and abstractions informed de Kooning’s work starting in the 1940s. In “Fire Island,” de Kooning chose a frantic, textured yellow/orange that evokes Gorky’s aptly named “Golden Brown.” In both pieces, the warm backgrounds are offset by searing black scratches, which lend the works violent narratives. Within “Fire Island,” de Kooning splayed abstracted pieces of the human form frenetically across the canvas. A punctured stomach, entangled intestines, and pulled teeth intersperse wildly amidst household objects like shoes and cigars. The black scratches suggest the possibility that all of these things were once in a cohesive unit (a body) but have been dismembered and rendered useless. De Kooning taps into his mythological male fears and includes a dismembered penis and testicles.

The fixation on the human body is evident in several other works included in the exhibition. “Untitled” (1984) depicts pulsating, braided blue and red lines. The lines appear vein-like and form a coherent system of movement across the canvas. The blue lines begin in a floral cluster toward the middle of the expansive white background and flow outwards, as if extending beyond the edges of the physical canvas. The reds weave between and above the blues, circulating like blood within a human body.

De Kooning suffered from alcoholism and depression throughout his life. For the artist, the 1980s were a time of sobriety and recovery. The reasoning behind the fascination with the human body becomes clear within a context of a renewal of admiration for the strength and malleability of human life. The artist’s sobriety is also reflected in the relative calmness and focus of many of the paintings—for instance, the flowing flesh tones in many of the works. The loose abstractions of thighs, biceps, and fingers floating in a sea of knotted pink intestines and female genitalia lack the violence of de Kooning’s earlier works of the female form.

The entire show is an engaging biographical narrative, and whether it represents de Kooning’s best or worst is almost beside the point. It is representative of the artist’s complete exploration of his creativity.

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