Willem de Kooning at MOCA

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Until I saw an exhibition of drawings by Willem de Kooning that opened last month at MOCA, I thought I knew and liked his work, but not more than that. Now I know better. This remarkable show traces his career from the late 1930s to the mid 50s, from neo classical portraits of his wife to the savagely beautiful drawings of naked women at the pinnacle of his career. In 1952-53, in an amazing burst of creativity, de Kooning created hundreds of drawings, mostly pastel and charcoal on paper. Often they depict a single naked female figure, sometimes two.

If you've never seen artworks capable of at once scaring the daylights out of you, while hypnotizing with its primordial beauty, this is your chance. Not pretty and definitely not nice, but of a rare kind that still touches a raw nerve even fifty years after it first appeared, in 1953 at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York. Through the early 50s, de Kooning worked on a series of large oil paintings, considered his masterpieces. Several dozen drawings in the MOCA were made in preparation for his famous large canvases of a ferocious female figure, whose naked body is not only defined by slashing brushstrokes, but also carved, whipped -- one might say even ridiculed -- by the artist. Their huge protruding eyes, scary looking buttocks and breasts make Picasso's "Demoiselles d'Avignon" look almost demure.

Even for the uninitiated among viewers, these drawings will convey a sense of spontaneity which was of paramount importance for the artist. "I refrain from 'finishing,'" he once said. Obviously the very process of making an artwork was for him a search for the subliminal, evasive truth.

Like a hunter enjoying the chase more than capturing the prey, de Kooning is fighting a battle to bridge abstract and figurative art and the scorching heat of this battle still radiates from his drawings. Acts of erasure -- smearing, smudging, rubbing - characteristic of his art making process feel like punches thrown by the boxer in fight. Even among many supreme drawings, the one belonging to MOCA itself and bequeathed by Marcia Weissman, the museum founder, stands out as superlative. Two female figures combine masculine physique with female attributes and convey erotic desire and dangerous sexual energy that our civilization tries to control in vain. What makes this and other drawings so irresistible for me is the way they enter physically and emotionally into my psyche and into the space I occupy here, right now. And they stay with me. It happens rarely and I am grateful when it does, though sometimes it happens not without a battle.

I hated Max Bechman's haunting art the first time I encountered it. Willem de Kooning was an easier case. Initially I merely liked him. MOCA's exhibition, which I rate as one of the best museum shows in the country in the last decade, is a window into a heroic era of American art, when artists dared to break with the cultural conformity of post World War II era.



For more information, please contact:
Museum of Contemporary Art
250 South Grand Ave
Los Angeles CA 90012
(213) 626-6222