On a recent afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art, chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture John Elderfield was in the process of hanging paintings for his upcoming retrospective of Willem de Kooning, which opens on Sept. 18, when he asked the art handlers to do something unconventional. Would they mind holding one of the paintings upside down?
The painting in question, Mr. Elderfield told The Observer, was the well-known Secretary (1948), an abstract work owned by the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., and one of the 50 or so paintings that Mr. Elderfield knew he had to have for the retrospective, which is the culmination of a six-year effort to make the 200-work show as authoritative as possible.
“In my travels I went to Minneapolis and saw a very strange, rather grotesque painting called Night of the same period,” Mr. Elderfield said on the phone. “I was looking at it and thinking, you know, there’s something really familiar about this, but I can’t figure out what it is.
“And then it dawned on me that it was the same composition as the Hirshhorn picture, but turned upside down. Clearly, it had been made by one being traced onto the canvas to produce the other.”
For Mr. Elderfield it was the kind of insight that only such a retrospective can provide. People have known for years that de Kooning frequently traced his drawings to splice them into multiple paintings—photographs of his studio from this period show it to be littered with tracing paper—but these things are hard to pin down.
The art handlers at MoMA were justifiably dubious, he recalled, but they held Night next to Secretary, both obtained on loan from their respective museums, just two of the hundred institutions and collectors that made work available.
“I said, ‘Have you seen it yet?’” he said, when they had the valuable painting inverted. Even recreated in Photoshop, as The Observer saw it, the effect is impressive, with the lower half of the painting falling in just the same way, a near-identical, mushroom-shape figure in the upper half of both. Their similarities make them more distinct; the rougher one seems more rigid, a nightmare version of the other. “They said, ‘Oh, my god! I can’t believe this! Look, look!’”
Willem de Kooning, who died in 1997, was one of the most important of the Abstract Expressionist painters. Born in Rotterdam, he eventually went to New York, where he moved in bohemian circles and became known as a central figure of the New York School, along with artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Hans Hofmann.
A de Kooning retrospective packs a punch in New York, where the painter made his name, and to say that Mr. Elderfield’s exhibition is exhaustive would be an understatement. He estimates that he pared down 800 possible paintings to the 200 in the show. The 1940s, when De Kooning came to maturity, are best represented, but the works on display span the course of his life. Though Mr. Elderfield’s own knowledge of de Kooning was impressive before he organized this exhibition—the British Mr. Elderfield has credited a book on de Kooning, which he read at age 24, with bringing him to America, since England and France seemed to have nothing nearly as revolutionary to offer—he said there are certain elements of de Kooning that can be learned only through organizing such a show.
“Many people have written about him as alternating between abstraction and figuration,” Mr. Elderfield said, adding that he found this not to be the case when assembling the show. “He did, in the period up to 1950, actually work simultaneously in abstraction and figuration. It wasn’t that there was an abstract period and then a figurative period and then an abstract period. He did them both at the same time and then from 1950 to the early ’60s they did alternate and then after that they combined.
“De Kooning had been working in different kinds of abstraction, while working in figuration, doing pieces where it’s pretty clear from the pictures that it’s only when he’s bringing them to absolute conclusion does he decide whether they’ll be abstract pictures or figurative pictures.”
For this reason the exhibition, as you pass through it, is fairly chronological, allowing visitors to see how the two styles of painting influenced each other and evolved over the years. “It’s about having continuity by change rather than by similarity,” Mr. Elderfield said.
“The narrative becomes different so then the challenge is how do you actually display this,” Mr. Elderfield said. “I think the answer is you have to include them all and if he’s working simultaneously in different styles you have to show them in the same gallery.”
In the show, as perhaps in de Kooning’s career, all this leads to Excavation (1950), a work that was celebrated almost as soon as it was finished, even by his critics. As big as his paintings came, at six feet by eight feet, it portrays a multitude of interlocking figures, supposedly inspired by an image of women working in a rice field from the 1949 neorealist film Bitter Rice.
“It seems to me that actually if you couldn’t borrow that you shouldn’t actually be doing the show,” Mr. Elderfield said. “Excavation is an abstract painting in a very individualized version of late Cubist style, and it’s still linked to that kind of abstraction that goes back to Picasso and Braque and back through them to Cézanne.
“He decided he was going to make the last Cubist painting in the world, and he’s going to get this out of his system and actually get it out in such a way that it’s effectively going to be the closing of a chapter in the whole history of art, not only in his own history, and that was it and then he was going to move on and do something else,” Mr. Elderfield said.
Immediately after Excavation, De Kooning put his theory into action, embracing art history in his celebrated Woman series, which was informed by the tradition of deifying the fairer sex, but included more than a dash of horror.
“He felt that an artist should look and draw not only from Picasso but also from Rubens and Rembrandt and he wanted to do that. That’s really what he did in the Woman pictures,” Mr. Elderfield said. “He figured he’d done Cubism and he was a modern artist. What he had to do more was connect himself to the whole past history of painting.”
One of the Woman paintings sold to Steven A. Cohen in 2006 for $137.5 million and the painter’s continued popularity raises the question of why there hasn’t been a big de Kooning retrospective since 1994. Mr. Elderfield said he believed the answer lies in the artist’s backward-looking glance after 1950.
“He effectively took himself off the idea of modern art as a progressively developing train moving in one direction,” Mr. Elderfield said. “And it happened by the early ’60s as Abstract Expressionism gave way to Pop Art and Minimalism. Whereas artists like Rothko and Newman and Pollock, who were painting reductive abstract pictures, easily fit into the history, de Kooning kind of didn’t fit in.
“He never subscribed to this idea that art has to move forward, sloughing off the past as it goes,” he added.
While the show’s essentially chronological nature seeks to draw a line through all of de Kooning’s work, Mr. Elderfield thinks visitors may be pleasantly surprised by the interplay of certain underrepresented periods.
“We were just hanging between 1975 and 1977,” he said. “And he couldn’t do anything wrong! He was just amazing in those years. We have six great abstractions from that period and four of them are up at the moment. Looking at them I kept saying to myself, ‘Why hasn’t anyone done a specialized show of these pictures before?’ Just as I’ve said to myself, ‘Why hasn’t anybody done the great black-and-white paintings of the 1940s?’ It’s weird. There’s so much just sitting there waiting to be done.” He chuckled. “But lucky me—I get to do it.”
Mr. Elderfield said he also hopes to impress visitors with de Kooning’s efforts near the end of his life in the 1980s. With limp curved lines and colors that don’t vary much within the same piece, these works were made in a period when dementia was beginning to set in. His assistants helped extensively, which led de Kooning biographers Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan to call them “de Koonings with an asterisk.”
Mr. Elderfield feels that they deserve a second look, especially within the context of this show.
“I think the real issue is where you actually draw the line with all this,” he said. “Mark is a friend and I think the biography’s really great; however, I do think that de Kooning continued to make extraordinary pictures for longer than Mark will have it and I think it’s more complicated than putting on an asterisk. It’s true that by middecade his dementia was at a point where he was not very adept in his daily life, but he continued to perform in the studio, I think, at a very high level.”
Chalking this up to an Alzheimer’s phenomenon known as cognitive reserve, Mr. Elderfield argues that the paintings still have merit.
“For example,” Mr. Elderfield said, explaining cognitive reserve, “you might have been a concert violinist who doesn’t recognize his family but can actually perform at the same level as he’s always performed, and it’s an amazing thing. And I think that this is what de Kooning was able to do. It’s all willed. The development of the work is something where the kind of extremely manual or made qualities of these pictures gradually give way to a greater simplification and the qualities of subjectivity which are presented earlier only gradually move out of them, until the end.”
It is here that the show becomes its most biographical, and with the holistic approach Mr. Elderfield has taken in curating the exhibit, its final galleries may be the show’s most striking.
“I think there’s something poignant about an artist painting his own disappearance. It’s something that doesn’t happen much—it did with Beethoven. The last gallery, I think, will have 12 paintings from 1981 through 1987 and it’s just going to be one of the most spectacular galleries of the show, so I feel really good about this.”
When the show opens this week, visitors will see that the meticulous Mr. Elderfield has dotted his i’s and crossed his t’s.
“I don’t need an asterisk,” he said.