Willem de Kooning’s Italy

VENICE — The press conference to celebrate this spasmodic retrospective of Willem de Kooning — about his four-decades-long encounter with Italy and all things Italian, and comprising 75 works — takes place in the Grande Sala of the Accademia, against a backdrop of one of the finest and widest paintings of the Italian Renaissance, Paolo Veronese’s “Feast in the House of Levi” (1573).

Is this a religious painting or not? Jesus sits centrally at a table almost as broad as the painting itself, as if presiding over an event called The Last Supper, soon to be rendered poignantly meaningful for millennia to come by his own crucifixion. 

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This tragic episode aside, the painting is more a scampish romp than a devotional work. Two dwarves make mischief in the foreground. A dog looks on. A boy, only his head visible, plays peek-a-boo at the extreme left-hand edge. Even Jesus looks askance, as if distracted from the overwhelming fact of his own spiritual significance by the presence of a beautiful boy called John.

This is what is happening directly in front of my eyes. To my left, as the long speeches, and their translations from Italian into English and then back again, drone on and on and on, I examine Veronese’s beguiling “Annunciation,” which features a flower-bearing angel, sturdy as a milkmaid, about to crash land almost at the feet of Mary, who cowers in terror.

What were Italy and religion to Willem de Kooning? In part, to encounter Italy meant a return to his roots. One of America’s greatest modern masters, he was European by birth, and had arrived in the United States as a stowaway from Rotterdam in 1926, at the tender age of 22. He first became a house painter in Hoboken, New Jersey, and then, a bit later on, a painter on canvas in New York City. 

Leaping a quarter-century forward, de Kooning’s first painting to be shown at the Venice Biennale was “Excavation,” displayed in a group exhibition at the US Pavilion in 1950. This painting proved to be a milestone in his art. Fractured and cinematographic, it finds the artist already positioning himself somewhere between the pursuit of pure abstraction and a fascination with the human figure. It is as much an excavation of his own ambitions as an artist as it is of anything else.   

In 1959 he made his first visit to Italy proper. A decade later, an extended trip to Rome resulted in an encounter with a man at a foundry in Trastevere who would turn his attention to the expressive possibilities of sculpture. Little by little, the years ahead found him responding to almost every aspect of the Italy he had seen and felt during those visits: its cultural heritage, its landscapes, its people.

The paintings in this show from the late 1950s and on prove that de Kooning had indeed sat at the feet of, and learnt much from, such old Italian masters as Titian and Tintoretto, from the sweep, confidence, and sheer panache of the brushwork to the richness of his color choices; from the ever-increasing size of the works to the ever-grander vision of what seemed to possess him. By the late 1950s, Americana met those lessons learnt from Italy head on: The surging brushwork of his “parkway” paintings has a rush and speed about it, a frenzied sideways, down and up and on … 

But nothing seems quite so significant to his work as that 1969 encounter with the expressive possibilities of three-dimensional form, which resulted first in objects made of clay, often very small in scale and hand-manipulated into life at great speed, and then, later, scaled up into bronzes monumental in size.

It is this hand-crafting that counts most of all, that gives the work such spontaneity and vitality. De Kooning twists and counter-twists the human form. He kneads and pummels and wrenches and pokes at the clay as if it is baker’s dough. Italy has made it happen, but de Kooning is also engaging with the known. The standing form of the “Clam Digger,” modeled first in wet clay, looks, for all its   grotesque extravagance, like a hard-bitten local. Unfortunately, de Kooning’s dealer didn’t much like these works. But Henry Moore did, and he helped de Kooning on his way by making a crucial suggestion. He felt that if the tiny were made large, it would transform them as sculptural presences. And that proved to be true.

In the show’s penultimate gallery is a collection of drawings from the 1960s and 1970s. One is a tentative charcoal rendering of a crucifixion scene. De Kooning could never manage a crucifixion, as he once told an interviewer: “I told him I couldn’t sustain the emotion for it, of a man hanging on the cross.”

For all that, the final gallery, devoted to his late works of the 1980s, is chapel-shaped, with a rounded, apsidal end. And the painting of 1987 that hangs where you would expect to find the high altar is called “The Cat’s Meow.” The lines are elegantly sculpted, but a zest and a cartoonish humor are at work here, too. Veronese might have smiled.

Willem de Kooning and Italy continues at the Gallerie dell’Accademia (Campo della Carità, Dorsoduro 1050, Venice, Italy) through September 15. The exhibition was curated by Gary Garrels and Mario Codognato.

Source: Hyperallergic.com

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