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Dear MoMA, Don’t Tease Me

by Howard Hurst on October 20, 2011

A number of Willem de Kooning's infamous "Woman" series at MoMA's de Kooning retrospective (all photos by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

So … by now we are all familiar with the critical fanfare surrounding MoMA’s de Kooning retrospective. Jerry Saltz is a big fan of the exhibition, Peter Schjeldahl thought it was awesome, Tyler Green keeps writing about it, even MSNBC covered the opening. I’m going to go ahead and agree with the common wisdom on the show. The exhibition, which is organized chronologically, takes the artists career as a whole, for better or worst. Apart from a slightly out of place wall of abstractions from the 1930s in the first room (small and gemlike) the whole show flowed intuitively and easily from development to development.

The wall texts were straightforward, tracking the development of the artist’s style from early graphite sketches, through surrealism into abstraction. It has often been discussed that de Kooning does not conform to the rigid definitions and prescriptions often applied to the New York school. His lapses in and out of figuration, as well as his flirtation with sparse color at the end of his life have been discussed, ridiculed and celebrated in turn. It is true that many dealers and critics have a hard time with the artist’s late “ribbon” paintings. The show’s curators have done a fantastic job in providing a context for the artist’s career as a whole. The scholarship is comprehensive and the catalogue is certainly beautiful. The show certainly feels big and important; its combined paintings are certainly worth more than the combined lifelong incomes of everyone I have ever met. Unfortunately, sometimes when you show a lot of leg it’s harder to hide the blemishes.  The last room of “ribbon paintings” feels a little sad next to the rest of the artist’s ambitious oeuvre.

Installation view of some of Willem de Kooning's later works from the 1980's

What really gets me though, is how thorough the show is. Unfortunately, ever since I showed up at the museum’s doorstep a few weekends ago there has been an itch I couldn’t scratch in the back of my head, a kind of persistent disquiet. Why did I find such an engaging exhibition frustrating? It simply reminded me of what a good job the Museum of Modern Art can do. They have the reach and reputation to pull in extremely rare and hard to find works and the resources to display them exactly how they want. (If you ever had the opportunity to peak into one of their galleries during an install, it’s pretty wild … those dudes build 30 foot walls like it’s no problem.)

Why am I being a spoilt sport? Well, I just can’t shake the kind of weird feeling I had almost a year ago when I saw MoMA’s Abstract Expressionist show. You can check out Hyperallergic’s media roundup from that show here. The overall feeling on the exhibition was that it was a lot of fun, but didn’t really change anything. There was a kind of muted disappointment in the air at the opening of the exhibition. The whole thing felt … well, kind of like we were covering a slightly disappointing new piece of legislation … concessions were mentioned (This included handful of lesser known artists and women woven into the show and the two, odd thematic mini exhibitions on view downstairs from the rest of the show). The shortcomings were discussed and the overall positives of the show applauded. Disappointment or full-fledged criticality was kept to a minimum largely because I think that’s what people expected. I don’t think anyone actually thought MoMA would be able to resist plopping single artist rooms for Pollock and Rothko right into the middle of the exhibition. That’s because, I think no one expects the museum of being capable of a real provocative imagining of the Ab-Ex cannon (something that has been written about ad-nauseum since the 1960s). I must admit my own thoughts followed this train. It wasn’t until I was knee deep in the brand new, shiny de Kooning exhibition that I realized my expectations should be higher.

I’m not discrediting the serious scholarship and mammoth effort that went into this exhibition. I was simply reminded that perhaps the Museum of Modern Art could learn from its own example and apply the rigorous scholarship and imaginative curatorial practice they bring to single artist shows into exhibitions with larger historical and social implications.

de Kooning: A Retrospective continues until January 9, 2012 at MoMA (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan).

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  • Charles Tarlton

    He was never exactly important by himself; the AbEx painters as a group changed and re-defined modern art. They are only important alongside each other. And I agree with you; the “ribbon” paintings I have seen are “a little sad.”

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