Pace Galleries

Roberta Smith Calls "Willem de Kooning: The Figure: Movement and Gesture" Resplendent in NY Times Review

The Pace Gallery 32 East 57th Street, Manhattan Through July 29 Willem De Kooning made many unforgettable statements about his own work, and one of them is splayed across the opening wall of this riveting show: “The figure is nothing unless you twist it around like a strange miracle.” Those words do what all great art-writing should do: help us to see, that is, to genuinely grasp and enjoy the complexity of vision involved in both making and looking at art. Specifically, they provide the perfect setup for the twists and strange miracles at hand, resplendent in a selection of 32 paintings, drawings and sculptures ranging from the late 1960s through the ’70s. De Kooning saw the figure as a rubbery, infinitely malleable subject perfectly suited to the malleable substance of paint and also to his conception of the painting process as one of unending, never-resolved flux and instability. That he usually set his figures in landscapes, full of green and light, only added to the tumult. A painting for De Kooning was a kind of perpetual-motion machine of shifting forms and gestures — his own and his subjects’— amid suggestions of torsos, heads and limbs (and feet!) and glissandos of paint. His skittish figures almost invariably twist and often seem to shout, whether they are doing the Charleston or a high kick, sitting cross-legged or tending gardens in the East Hampton sun. As the art historian Richard Shiff reminds us in a catalog essay that is itself wonderfully slippery and light-shedding, Cézanne was the artist De Kooning most admired. In a sense, De Kooning expanded Cézanne’s “petit sensation” from small and relatively dry to big, frowsy and very 20th century. This exhibition confirms that in many ways De Kooning was at heart a figurative painter, one in pursuit of an elusive, semiabstract reality that taunted him from the space between his canvas and the model. The caveat implicit in this view is that he was part of a European tradition and therefore conservative — especially compared with Jackson Pollock. But the works here show him forcing that tradition into a new alignment with process and with abstraction and, in this, well ahead of his time.

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