Report from de Kooning Retrospective Show, MoMA

When we decided to read de Kooning | An American Master for our book club  several months ago, it happened to coordinate with the MoMA retrospective show for the artist. I had hoped to make it to the show, but, alas, the timing didn’t work out for me. Artist Bob Lingle and  his wife Elizabeth saw the show and were kind enough to share their impressions and experience. Due to a technical snafu I didn’t share the post during the reading of the book as I had hoped, but I want to thank Bob again for taking the time to share.

Bob’s impressions of the show:

Elizabeth and I did manage to see the De Kooning Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art a couple of weeks ago. We made a 2-day trip from Northampton, Massachusetts (where we were visiting her youngest son and family), to Manhattan (to visit another son and family). My only regret is that our schedule limited us to about a two-hour exhibition review.

My first impression, naturally, was the difference between reproductions and actual viewings. For example, the reproduction of “Easter Monday,” one of my favorites in “…An American Master,” lists the dimensions as 961/4 X 73/7/8. As a painter I know that such a massive size demands a lot of work (the near view must be constantly checked by running back to a distant view). But the actual view for me was nearly incredible: the colors were more vivid; the textures of the paint were more visible; the balance of the color values emitted a great complexity of composition; the linear forces of his lines created for me a beautiful harmony; his translucent under-paintings and newspaper past-on’s were more visible; and the illusion of dimension was much more evident.

And naturally, the extent of the exhibition greatly reinforced the Steven and Swan masterful exposition of De Kooning’s development of styles right up to his latest paintings when he was suffering from dementia.The earlier paintings reproduced in their book, “Two Men Standing,” “Seated Woman,” and “Pink Angels,” and which were exhibited, suggested a possible journey ahead for De Kooning of more abstracted concepts of the human figure and of landscapes. But there were a lot of earlier paintings that suggested to me another possible journey. For example, there were paintings of colorful geometrical styles that suggested to me some of Picasso’s geometric shapes or even the simplicity of the shapes and colors of Milton Avery. I also enjoyed a fairly large exhibit of his black and white paintings and his sculptures. The former reminded me of one of the many personal anecdotes that Steven and Swan included: when this style of painting started making him money and saving him from eating too much ketchup, he always kept a gallon of white and a gallon of black enamel paint in his studio.

I certainly must thank and congratulate you for including De Kooning in you book seminars. Among other advantages for me was a greater appreciation of this exhibit. Another was an expanded understanding to the complex and fascinating art movement in New York as narrated by the vast collection of the aurthors’ inclusion of De Kooning’s contacts with his contemporary artists, critics, gallery owners, and museum officials. I was amused to discover, for example, numerous references to George McNeil and his contacts with and observations of De Kooning. While I took drawing and painting courses at the Silvermine School of Art in New Canaan, Connecticut, from 1986 to 1992, the school often invited those prominent in the art world to give talks at the school. One such was the artist George McNeil. I felt as though we were rubbing elbows with all those characters from the New York School at such places as the Cedar Tavern. George knew them all. My favorite anecdote was the report of the day De Kooning joined a stranger, Mark Rothko, on a part bench: two struggling artists first meeting, one of whom had to keep from starving by eating ketchup. The postscript to this encounter was a recent report on the 10 most expensive art sales: Rothko’s “Number 5”: $140,000,000, followed by De Kooning’s “Woman III”: $137,000.000. We saw the latter at MOMA.

And finally, at the risk of adding perhaps more boredom to my impressions, I feel compelled to mention what I would defined as an almost ghostly De Kooning-like experience on this trip. We were staying again at the old Hotel Northampton after our excursion to Manhattan. Elizabeth was taking her morning walk. I was at the hotel restaurant for their Continental breakfast. Three minutes before that I had read the last sentence in your seminar book. I was standing in line with an empty cup for the coffee dispenser and shaking the thermos of cream which seemed to be empty. A fairly short lady with plantinum blond hair was standing with back to me at the coffee dispenser. She asked the waiter who was passing by if they had any skim milk. Upon impulse I asked him if he had any “skim” cream. The lady turned around and gave me a big grim and laugh. My weird brain instantly told me that I had just amused someone with a kind of De Kooning corny joke, and that this someone was his daughter Lisa! I had earlier Googled her images since I had not recalled any in the book. I noticed that she was smartly dressed and that she joined a breakfast table with two other ladies and about four men, all of whom reminded me of professors or maybe art dealers. As a matter of reference to the possible professors, you probably know that Smith College is in Northampton—it has a fabulous 5-floor art museum with major paintings that I would guess would be the schools largest asset. And you may remember from the book that De Kooning failed to keep his promise (too drunk) to his attorney Lee Eastman to deliver the latter’s third lecture in honor of the death of his first wife, a 1933 alumnus of Smith. I also saw in this museum a small woman-painting De Kooning had donatedin honor of Eastman’s wife. (It was hung around the corner from what for me was an exceptional Franz Kline and and a not-bad Joan Mitchell). Unfortunately, I could find no evidence on the identity of this Lisa-like woman. Even as her father’s heir and co-conservator of his paintings, Lisa seems to shun publicity. If and until I ever verify my identity assumption, I will regard that smile and laugh from Lisa as a ghostly and wonderful encore for my 2011 great New York and Northampton De-Kooning experience.

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  1. Davis McGlathery

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