Paint for paint's sake.
To look at the 76 de Kooning paintings gathered at the National Gallery in "Willem de Kooning: Paintings," is to begin to understand how important paint as paint was to him.
Our recognition of that comes partly because we haven't been looking at paint as much as we once did. Since abstract expressionism's heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, we have gone through pop, minimalism and conceptualism -- movements for which paint, and painting as a means of making art, have been less important. So seeing a whole lot of abstract expressionist paint comes as a revelation in itself.
But even among the abstract expressionists, none gloried in the qualities of paint more than de Kooning. Those qualities are essential to the nature of his paintings. In his 1948 masterpiece "Zot," the paint is alternately grainy and smoothly blurred, as if the painting were pulling itself together and pushing itself apart, the surface in motion.
In "Clam Diggers" (1963), one of the show's smallest but most compelling works, the paint wiggles and squiggles down the canvas, suggesting the soft fleshiness of the two women's bodies, and also how the human body, when immersed in water, appears distorted.
In "Two Figures in a Landscape" (1967), the paint is bunched in places like hardened lava, suggesting that the two figures are becoming immobile aspects of the landscape. Paint isn't just a means, it's part of the meaning for de Kooning.
This landmark show will reaffirm his reputation as one of the foremost artists of the 20th century. He was also a sculptor, printmaker and draftsman, but above all a painter, and this show brings together the best of his work in that medium. It covers the period from the 1940s, shortly after he became a full-time painter in his late 30s, to the mid-1980s, shortly before the effects of age caused him to stop painting.
De Kooning is still alive, however, and the current show -- which will travel to New York and London -- is in part a celebration of his 90th birthday on April 24.
He was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and trained there as an artist, but he emigrated to America at age 22 and is generally referred to as an American artist -- or sometimes as "American, born the Netherlands."
Although he became one of the pre-eminent first-generation American abstract expressionists -- along with Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and others -- there's more than a little of the European sensibility in de Kooning's work. It comes through in more than one way in this show.
For one thing, there's the sense of a tradition being carried on. Although he was fascinated with modern art movements, such as de Stijl and cubism, other references suggest themselves as well. His work has more than once been described as baroque, and even compared to Rubens. In front of some of his monumental paintings of women, it's not hard to see why.
Unlike other abstract expressionists, de Kooning never entirely gave up representation. The traditions of landscape and figure painting inform his work at many levels, and even when he seems at his most abstract his titles often reveal a connection to something in the real world: "Excavation," "Montauk Highway," "September Morn," "Souvenir of Toulouse."
He once said, "I don't really feel like a non-objective painter at all."
And there's the humor. The abstract expressionists could take themselves awfully seriously. One feels they think humor would somehow demote their work to a lesser plane. But de Kooning was often, and deliberately, funny.
The smiles on his women may be seen as grimaces, but they aren't necessarily. A woman in a painting that's all slashes and distortions will have this stupid smile on her face, as if she's completely unaware of how she looks. "I have a lot of the cartoonist in me" de Kooning said. "I think my women are very funny."
De Kooning's work is ultimately and essentially American, however -- as American as our violence and aggressive loudness. But also as American as our love of freedom, our mobility and above all our open-ended and constantly shifting society. This shows particularly in de Kooning's work of the 1950s and 1960s.
The exhibit begins with a group of somewhat restrained figure studies of the late 1930s and early 1940s, which undergo a radical change with the clownish "Woman" and the boisterous "Pink Lady," both of about 1944. These are succeeded by a group of partly surrealist-inspired paintings, followed by a group of extremely refined abstractions, culminating in the acclaimed "Excavation" of 1950.
"Excavation" is a perfectly balanced painting in which every mark seems exquisitely calculated. One is never quite sure whether ,, de Kooning is excavating the figure to discover abstraction or excavating abstraction to rediscover the figure.
Along with these more abstract works, de Kooning continued to concentrate on women. These lead to the great women paintings of the early 1950s. During that and the succeeding decade, he was alternately landscape- and figure-inspired, sometimes both -- as with "Two Figures in a Landscape" (1967), "Woman in Landscape III" (1968) and "Woman in a Garden" (1971).
Toward the end of his career, de Kooning executed a group of spare canvases that recall his 1940s surrealism. In some cases, especially with "Untitled III" (1986), they flirt more boldly with representative landscape than de Kooning ever had before. These are lovely, but they lack the tension and the challenge of de Kooning at his best -- and most American.
Perhaps the best perspective on de Kooning's American-ness is gained by comparing his work with that of his older compatriot and fellow abstract artist Piet Mondrian. De Kooning came to this country in 1926 at age 22. Mondrian came in 1940, when he was 68. Both responded to America, but Mondrian had long been formed when he arrived. His way of dealing with the American experience was to try to fit it into his mold.
If Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie-Woogie" was evidence of his response to American culture, it was also evidence of his attempt to impose his form of order on the cacophony of American life. If de Kooning's paintings show the influence of the European past on his art, they also were his way of showing how the European tradition had been taken over and altered by the American present.
FOR PAINT'S SAKE
What: "Willem de Kooning: Paintings"
Where: The National Gallery of Art, Constitution Avenue and 4th Street N.W., Washington
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, through Sept. 5
Call: (202) 737-4215