This installation of recent works by Willem de Kooning-coupled with a related de Kooning drawing from the University Art Museum's permanent collection-suggests that the artist, now in his early seventies, continues to create complex and powerful images, at times savage in their intensity.
The most unexpected development in de Kooning's late career has been his new interest in sculpture. In 1969 the artist was in Italy and visited a friend who had a small foundry. He was invited to try his hand with sculpture. The result was thirteen "Little Pieces" as they are now sometimes called. Each is only five to seven inches high.
It is not likely that he would have pursued this casual encounter with the medium had not Henry Moore, on a visit to New York the following year, admired these initial efforts and encouraged him to explore sculpture on a larger scale. Clamdigger, on view in MATRIX, was his first major piece.
De Kooning was one of a handful of influential abstract expressionists whom the critic Harold Rosenberg called "Action Painters." Rosenberg later said that de Kooning's improvisations provided the model for the concept of "Action Painting." Loosely speaking, these phrases were meant to designate their common interests in the act of painting and to pinpoint the drama of those highly charged moments when the artist confronts the canvas.
The artist's manipulation of the paint was a focal point for these artists. This is important to recall because the primacy of the artist's touch-de Kooning's distinctly tactile assault upon the clay-is key to the evocative strength of his sculpture.
Another influential aspect of de Kooning's work over the decades has been his ability to explore abstract forms in some works while, at the same time, exploring frankly figurative or landscape motifs in other works. The recent canvas, (Untitled XVII, 1977) painted last year, does not represent a major change in direction for de Kooning. Rather it stands as a rich variation on his continuing interest in high-keyed color abstractions in which the paint is furiously manipulated and willfully re-worked. The result of all this activity is a diversity of surface textures. The paint appears variously pitted, matted and wrinkled, swirled, dripped and raked.
It is important to the artist that in the intentional ambiguity of his abstract forms lurk chance reminders of human figures, animals and landscapes. Says de Kooning, "Even abstract shapes must have a likeness."
Willem de Kooning was born in Rotterdam in 1904. When he was twelve he was apprenticed to a firm of commercial artists and decorators and shortly thereafter began eight years of conventional training in night classes at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques. In 1926 he came to the United States as a stowaway aboard a Holland-America liner. For many years he worked as a house painter and window display designer. In 1935 he spent a year with the Federal Arts Project (W.P.A.) and for the first time was able to paint fulltime. Although he had to resign because of his alien status, the experience was responsible for his decision to devote total energies to his painting. By the end of the forties, he was well-known as one of the founders of abstract expressionism.
Willem de Kooning lives in The Springs, Long Island and is represented by Xavier Fourcade Gallery in New York City.
This MATRIX unit was originally organized for MATRIX/HARTFORD of the Wadsworth Atheneum by Andrea Miller-Keller who has written the above essay. This essay and Artist's Sheet has been adapted for the MATRIX/BERKELEY presentation.