In the Ether

I want to lay down my offerings and give deep thanks to MoMA for the dazzling de Kooning retrospective that recently closed.  I gotta hand it to those curators: they really know how to hang a show for maximum effect.  I love abstract expressionism, but it has got to be hung right.  Many of its most well-known artists sit uneasily in each other’s company.  I don’t like walking into a room with one Pollack and one Krasner and one Rothko and one Kline.  But a huge gallery hung with nothing but Pollacks or Rothkos is like jumping into a paint can and having all your three wishes granted by the genie inside.

The de Kooning show followed his work’s natural chronology, but it gave fascinating insight into his technique.  The man was like the Fred Astaire of visual art; his brush couldn’t dance but elegantly.  And this was particularly evident as he ventured ever deeper into abstraction; every stroke and flourish registered gracefully.  I am reminded of a compliment I once read on the wall of the Whitney.  A fellow artist (Duchamp?) said that Calder was a master of the line in space.  When I first read the observation, I had no idea what it could possibly mean.  I thought it was a totally abstract concept.  But the thought has stayed with me for years and it has powerfully informed how I’ve grown to observe the world.  … And I can’t think of a better description of de Kooning’s gift and burden.

It was fascinating to see his experiments in ‘unlearning’ his mastery: test drawings where he drew with his eyes closed or with his less dominant hand.  Each era of his art-making explored new ways of simplifying his compositions and stripping away unnecessary layers.  It seems that beauty itself was simply one more component to be removed from the picture and it took all his concentration to lose it.

The exhibit’s final rooms display the poetry of transcendence.  Out of context, I’d likely think very little of these works.  The palette is out of sync with my core attractions and the shapes hold no obvious resonances for me.  Yet, the journey through this exhibit gives the visitor an intuitive understanding of the work.  To see the ’80s paintings after moving though everything that came before is to experience them as the perfection of an idea, a life’s work and a spiritual search.  Clearly, the question is not about the meaning of life, but about the meaning of a life’s work.

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