- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 31, 2001

Critics and the public alike celebrate abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning as a 20th-century icon. Today, the Corcoran Gallery of Art opens an exhibit that takes an intense look at the American artist's working methods.

"Willem de Kooning: In Process" will surprise many viewers because it turns around the usual view of the artist as a spontaneous, often violently gestural painter. Exhibit curator Klaus Kertess surveys Mr. de Kooning's thoughtful approach and reworking of his canvases with 20 paintings and eight drawings dating from 1970 to 1987.

Mr. de Kooning, who died in 1997 at age 92, often reproduced all or parts of a painting. He used tracing paper and later large sheets of vellum, a kind of parchment paper, to incorporate different sections into later works.

Local exhibitions have been organized before of the work of the Dutch-born artist. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the National Gallery of Art honored Mr. de Kooning's 90th birthday with major shows. The Hirshhorn, which houses the most comprehensive collection of Mr. de Kooning's work in any public institution, homed in on the artist's techniques in that 1994 show.

Curator Judith Zilczer and conservator Susan Lake described the artist's unusual merging of painting and drawing in the Hirshshorn catalog.

Olga Hirshhorn, who became close friends with Mr. de Kooning along with her husband. Joseph ("Joe"), remembers that the artist experimented with different mediums. He presented her with a black-and-white silk scarf in the 1970s as a result of that experimentation, she says.

Shows of Mr. de Kooning's works also have been mounted by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City (1968), Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York (1978), Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (1983) and Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (1984).

Mr. Kertess emphasizes Mr. de Kooning's painting-drawing relationships with pairings and threesomes in the traveling show at the Corcoran. Two oils "XIII" (untitled) (circa 1970) and "XV" (no title) (circa 1980) relate directly to the charcoal-and-oil-on-vellum drawings. (Because Mr. de Kooning rarely signed and dated his works, the Roman numerals here refer to the order the works as presented in the exhibition, the brochure and catalog. If Mr. de Kooning inscribed a painting with "Untitled" it is so listed. If he gave the work no name, it is indicated as "no title.")

Mr. de Kooning's paintings in the 1970s were highly unstructured, and "XIII" shows this loose approach. The artist usually began with a charcoal underdrawing of a woman, and her head is barely visible at the top of this painting.

Later he pressed the vellum of the "XIV" charcoal-and-oil image onto the "XIII" painting to make a tracing. Mr. de Kooning worked with a sticky, wet paint and easily lifted off the tracing.

Mr. Kertess effectively mounts the vellum tracing ("XIV") in a clear double-sided stand so viewers can also see it in reverse. It demonstrates how the artist altered the original painting by outlining forms in the painting and giving it a different character.

The artist is most famous for the women he depicted throughout his life. Of the major artists of his generation, Mr. de Kooning was the only one to focus on the human figure, first male, then female.

The exhibit's "Woman in a Garden," though painted in 1971, shows a similar technique and his continuing obsession with women. Mr. de Kooning made the accompanying "Head Still Life" from a traced section of "Woman" that he turned on its side.

"Woman" also shows how he resolved his spatial dilemma that began in the 1950s. Mr. de Kooning opens up and fragments what began as outlines in the charcoal underdrawing. It is an amorphous composition in which flesh and surroundings merge with each other.

He called it "ambiguous space," imagining it as the chaotic environment in which contemporary life takes place.

Mr. de Kooning thought of these women as idols and oracles. In a lecture given in 1950 at Studio 35 in New York, he said, "There is a train track in the history of art that goes way back to Mesopotamia … Duchamp is on it. Cezanne is on it. Picasso and the cubists are on it.

Miss Zilczer described these females as "grotesquely proportioned women with threatening grins that call up images of death's heads" in the brochure in the Hirshhorn's 1994 show.

The artist had trained at the rigorous Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques in Rotterdam in the Netherlands and was steeped in the history of Western art. The women evoke Mesopotamian earth goddesses but also what critic Robert Hughes called "the vulgarity of American mass images" as seen in the women in the old Camel cigarette ads.

"In creating this Doris Day with shark teeth, an amphibian living between the atavistic and the trivial, de Kooning had come up with one of the most memorable images of sexual insecurity in American culture," Mr. Hughes writes in his book "The Shock of the New."

Mr. Kertess shows the humor lying behind the "women." He juxtaposed what he calls "three mirth mothers" on one wall, all painted from a common template, which, unfortunately, he did not include.

They show how the artist moved the thighs, cuffs and shoes of the women to create different images. The curator says the painter loved shoes, and they move freely through the paintings.

"VII" (no title) is a hilarious painting of a cross-eyed woman. Its calligraphic lines give it a humorous lightness. By contrast, Mr. de Kooning painted a more troubled view of a woman in "VI" (no title).

The painter began in 1985 to project photocopies of small drawings, mainly from the 1960s, onto bigger canvases as the starting point of new works.

One is a witty charcoal drawing "Untitled (Seated Woman on the Beach)" (XVII) (1966-67), the inspiration for "XVIII" (1986) and "XIX" (Untitled XX) (1986). The paintings show the progression from real form to abstract. In XVII he still places the figure in the middle and keeps vestiges of the eyes through a vibrant calligraphy. "XIX" is a softer, more abstract form with the contours filled in.

Mr. Kertess worked with the de Kooning estate to show the greatest range of the painter's different approaches. He points out in the exhibition label that Mr. de Kooning never wanted to finish a painting and used the tracings as a kind of detour.

This is a challenging exhibition, one that could be the beginning of others exploring this aspect of the artist's work. Organized by the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., it is on the last stop of a four-museum tour.

WHAT: "Willem de Kooning: In Process"

WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW

WHEN: Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Tuesdays and until 9 p.m. Thursdays, through May 28

TICKETS: $5 adults, $8 families, $3 seniors and member guests, $1 students

PHONE: 202/639-1800

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