On de Kooning, Orozco, and Twombly
by Carol Diehl
I could not agree more with Roberta Smith’s strongly worded review of Gabriel Orozco’s show at Marian Goodman, which ended Saturday (note: the images look better online than they did in person). My thoughts exactly: a case of an artist who can do wonderful things (his drawings on money and tickets being some of my favorite artworks ever), churning out stuff for the marketplace to the point that I wonder if he even knows who he is anymore. But then you have to feel sorry for anyone who shows while de Kooning is on at MoMA, and has to stand up to the inevitable comparisons.
Willem de Kooning. Pink Angels. c. 1945. Oil and charcoal on canvas, 52 x 40" (132.1 x 101.6 cm). Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation, Los Angeles. © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
I didn’t see how the de Kooning retrospective could live up to the hype but it did—it was energizing and inspiring, even though some of the selected pieces (especially from the artist’s late period) weren’t the best examples, not to to speak of the pedestrian installation. Is it really necessary to group all of the “woman” paintings together in a row? At MoMA, chronology wins out over aesthetics, as if we’re all art historians for whom it’s important to compare similar paintings side-by-side. Big square rooms, white walls, everything lined up in order…hey, it’s the 21st century! How about a little originality? And also is it necessary to show SO MUCH work at one time? I know that’s a silly question since the whole idea of a blockbuster is to cram in as much as possible—and to hell with selection. Why show three black –and-white paintings when you can get ten? The result, no matter how great the artist, can be overwhelm and overkill, and it’s to de Kooning’s credit that he survives it here.
I remember approaching the gigantic 2005 Cy Twombly works on paper show at the Whitney with high anticipation, and coming out thinking…eh? Fortunately my love for Twombly has since been restored, especially this summer when I went to a beautiful small show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, where his work was paired with that of Poussin—to Twombly’s advantage. Often you can learn more about an artist by looking at a few well-chosen paintings than being distracted and suffocated with more.
I went to the MoMA show with someone who knew de Kooning and his work well, and who once took me to visit him in his vast Hampton’s studio, where I admired the artist’s hydraulic easel that not only raised and lowered into a well in the studio floor, but could turn and tilt to any angle. At MoMA, as we were looking at Woman I, my friend told me that after working on it ceaselessly and not feeling resolved, de Kooning put the canvas under his bed and didn’t paint anything for nine months, causing much consternation in the then-small art world. He pulled it out for a visit by Meyer Shapiro, telling the art historian that he didn’t know if it was finished or not.
“It’s finished,” Shapiro said.
Willem de Kooning, Woman I, 1950-52. Oil on canvas, 6' 3 7/8" x 58" (192.7 x 147.3 cm). MoMA Purchase. © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
[Can we imagine Orozco choosing not to work for nine months? Caring enough not to work for nine months?]
It’s impossible to look at de Kooning and not think of all the other artists (Pollock, Gorky, Kline, etc.) he was bouncing off of, who were working in similar ways, and to recognize how—when a group is working on the same idea, if separately—they push each other to outdo each other and develop it collectively. The downside is that the pressure to adhere to a movement or style can be very confining (I know this from personal experience, having been an abstract artist in Chicago where the Imagists held such sway that the only option was to move to New York)—however it made me think that the complete freedom we have today may be the one of the reasons so little truly great art is being produced.
Leaving the exhibition we walked down the stairs to the first floor where a massive Twombly was hung over the information desk, edge-to-edge scrawls of white crayon on a uniform gray ground. My friend and I had once shared an experience at the Clark Institute with one of Monet’s cathedral paintings, which started out appearing to be almost entirely abstract—but as we looked, the sun seemed to come out and illuminate the façade until we could see its sculptural detail clearly. Similarly here, gazing at the Twombly, the fairly regular, overall pattern of loops began to form themselves into clouds, and the painting took on the unexpected illusion of movement and depth. Gorgeous.
I’ve been back to the Clark since, wanting to see the Monet in the same way again, but it resisted. By now you’d think I would have learned the folly of trying to recreate peak experiences.
Cy Twombly. Untitled. 1970. Oil-based house paint and crayon on canvas. 13' 3 3/8" x 21' 1/8" (405 x 640.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest and The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection (both by exchange). (C) 2011 Cy Twombly