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Posts tagged MoMA
Until recently the only Willem De Kooning paintings I knew well were the big, tumultuous ones in the “Woman” series from the early 1950’s. After seeing the artist’s current retrospective at MoMA, called, simply, de Kooning: A Retrospective, I realized that “Woman” marked just one passage in his career. Like no other painter except Picasso, de Kooning had periods. The friend I visited with, a Dutchwoman, taught me how to pronounce the artist’s name correctly (VILL-um duh KOH-ning), and then observed that de Kooning had all that Picasso had except for genius. I see what she was getting at. Each of De Kooning’s periods is well-represented at MoMA, and each is powerfully reminiscent of the work of one or more of his contemporaries. As I walked through the galleries I recalled Picasso, Chagall, Leger, Kandinsky, Rothko and, greatly, De Kooning’s Springs, Long Island neighbor Jackson Pollock.
But I also found in de Kooning’s work, more than in the work of any of these other painters, a pleasure in the physical act of painting. In De Kooning, even more than in Pollock, the hand of the painter is insistent. This is especially so in the later canvases. My friend noticed that after the late 1960’s De Kooning rarely lifted his paintbrush from the surface, and moved paint back and forth in luscious, churning strokes that turned in and around on themselves. If Picasso had a masterful, plastic intelligence that could shape any material at will, then de Kooning had an intelligence about saturating a canvas with life. He rarely leaves a corner unoccupied or uncomposed. In his last years, he was painting large, luminous, white-based canvases cut through with lines of strong color. They’re like maps of a place he knows well.
“Lust for Life,” Vincente Minelli’s 1956 movie about Vincent van Gogh, really delivers. It gives us the love affair with the hooker, the tender patronage of brother Theo, the verbal flare-ups with Gauguin, the ear-cutting, and, in between all the drama, some painting. It also, quietly and convincingly, recreates places from Van Gogh’s paintings, taking us to the outdoor cafe at Arles, the billiards table, the artist’s bedroom, and the field with crows.
Most remarkably, the film has actors, both in speaking roles and in the background, who resemble the artist’s portraits. Kirk Douglas, who plays Van Gogh, doesn’t feel sufficiently tormented and inward-looking to be the painter, but he looks just like a self-portrait. The minor characters are stunning. The potato eaters, Dr. Gachet, the Zouave, the postman, they all come naturally to life. The people who sat for Van Gogh must have been those who cared for him, and those he loved most. Watching the film, I understood that the faces of the people around us are an integral part of our landscape. They’re what the world looks like to us.
I was at PS 1 in Astoria this weekend to attend a symposium called “Foreclosed,” about housing in America. I walked through the courtyard installation, a series of white cables that shaped ghostly curved surfaces in the air. And I saw the exhibit of art made in response to 9/11. But what impressed me most was the architecture of the museum, which is housed in an old public school.
There’s nothing subtle, nothing graceful, about it. The school is a hulking, symmetrical, red brick building with stiff facades and severe proportions. The original structure and finishes have been left in place. There are rough brick walls and wire security cages in the stairwells, and tile arches in the ceilings. And the long hallways have checkerboard linoleum floors sealed in layers of varnish, and sagging oak doors leading into the classrooms. A friend, an architect and native New Yorker, explained that the building design was once standard for New York public schools. Some would find the institutional feeling oppressive, especially in relation to the forward-looking art. But I found it, on that day, particularly reassuring. In contrast with the symposium, which offered cerebral propositions about housing and living, the building offered shelter and space.
There are always all sorts of real estate shenanigans going down in New York, but they don’t usually involve museums. Now the Folk Art Museum is selling its building to MoMA and the Whitney is renting its building to the Met. It wouldn’t mean much except that the two properties changing hands are signature buildings. The Whitney, especially, is a building that’s indelibly linked with the organization and its collections. I know that they’re currently building new digs for themselves downtown. But what will we call the magnificent Madison Avenue building now, The Metney?
I can’t separate these museum buildings from their art. I’m still haunted by memories of the old MoMA and the way particular paintings lived inside of it. There was a special room for the “Water Lilies” with picture windows overlooking the courtyard that flooded the room with sunlight. There was Oskar Schlemmer’s “Bauhaus Staircase” hanging, unimaginatively and perfectly, in the staircase. And there was an exuberant Florine Stettheimer canvas with a loony frame tucked into a dead-end hallway within one of the larger galleries. Each time I reached this painting, after winding my way there through larger, more monumental works, it gave me a jolt of happiness. It was in just the right place.