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Culture news
The late show
07.14.2006 14:57

america By Andrei Vorobei

Special to St. Petersburg Times

An exhibition of work by one of the giants of American art is on show at the State Hermitage Museum.

On U.S. Independence Day, the State Hermitage Museum celebrated by opening an exhibition of work by the influential American artist Willem de Kooning.

Following the large retrospective of Cy Twombly at the museum three years ago, the de Kooning show presents another American superstar of 20th century art and is indisputably the major exhibition in St. Petersburg this summer. The exposition is drawn from American private and public collections and represents the first time that the artist has had a show devoted entirely to his work in Russia. The singularity of the project is that it features only the most recent, rarely shown and still-debated period of the artist’s long and prolific career. In this way, the Russian audience’s familiarization with de Kooning’s heritage will start from the end — that is, from his paintings of the 1980s.

Although a giant of American art, de Kooning did not become an American resident until the age of 22, in 1926, after leaving Rotterdam in the Netherlands where he was born and where he studied. In 1927 in New York he met Arshile Gorky, who became one of his closest friends and with whom he shared a studio.

From the 1920s to the 1940s his circle was extended by such poets, artists, and curators as Edwin Denby, John Graham, Stuart Davis and David Smith. He was promoted by such critics as Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. During the 1940s, he participated in group shows; at one of them he met Jackson Pollock.

Thereafter he was increasingly identified with the New York School, also known as the Abstract Expressionists, and by the mid-50s he was considered one of its foremost figures.

De Kooning’s first one-man show, featuring a powerful black-and-white abstract cycle at the New York Egan Gallery in 1948, institutionalized his growing underground reputation and fame among artists.

All this was despite the fact that with all his biomorphic free-associative compositions and explicit anatomical citations in paintings, he had never completely abandoned figurative principles in his abstract puzzles, contradicting the dominant stylistic canon of the period.

In the 1940s, de Kooning started his first series of paintings called “Women” — the most celebrated of his works — which became a leitmotif during a life-long career. He exclusively addressed this theme again in the early 1950s, and then, after turning to abstract urban and rural landscapes, he created a new group of “Women” in the 1960s. In the early 1970s he tried sculpture. During the 1960s and 1970s, de Kooning’s work was the subject of a series of exhibitions around the world.

In the meantime, de Kooning was almost alone among the painters of the New York School to witness the decline of the revolutionary post-war American art movement, which lifted American art to dominance on the international art scene. Such leading figures in painting as Gorky and Pollock died during the 1940s and 1950s — either from suicide or in car crashes.

The Hermitage’s exhibition presents what was to follow in de Kooning’s career.

“It seems like a lot of artists, when they get older, they get simpler,” de Kooning said in 1959. This was the case for his own later work, too. Although it continued to involve familiar biomorphic fragments, compared to his grotesque and blatant technique in the “Women” series, with their totemic smiles, his 1980s works look tranquil and pastoral.

“De Kooning went from violent tumult to a baroque painterly hedonism, and from there, in his last great works, to a radiant, sensuous calm,” as one critic put it.

The work is colorful, joyful, and full of the vitality of gesture. There are different interpretations of this “haunting and ethereal” period. Some see it as revelation, a therapy for a man who battled with Alzheimer’s disease (he was diagnosed in the 1980s); others suggest that they were simply sold off by enterprising art dealers before they were finished.

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