Wild paintings by a Dutch artist are the subject of the most important New York mega-exhibition in decades. Willem de Kooning stowed away aboard a cargo ship, arrived in the United States as an undocumented immigrant, and became perhaps the most emblematic “American” painter of the 20th Century.

The painter died in 1997 and was neither controversial nor tragic enough to attract the attention of glossy, mass-market magazines the way Jackson Pollock did before dying in a drunken car accident in 1956. He was the painterly opposite of Norman Rockwell—one of America’s most famous artists—whose Saturday Evening Post covers soothed the traumatized hearts of Post War American families. And unlike Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko—all colleagues in the as-yet-unnamed Abstract Expressionist art movement—he did not kill himself, even as his mind and body were being ravaged by Alzheimer’s disease in the 1980s.

The show of more than 200 works opens Sept. 18 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and includes what are arguably some of the most important paintings of the 20th Century including Excavation (1950), inspired by the artist’s insomniac, late-night walks around Manhattan during an era of subway line expansion and construction that left the ground beneath his feet gashed opened like concrete scars; and his 1945 breakthrough piece, Pink Angels, an early attempt to bridge the once irreconcilable schools of Freudian Surrealism and Analytical Cubism—already 30-year-old movements.

On a larger level, the de Kooning show, at this moment in history, does two things. It brings to an end the ferocious, spiritually-empty money-march to which painting was subjected, or subjected itself to, during the 1980s. And it re-opens the debate over whether painting, 20,000 years after it was invented, is dead, as many have said.

“This show can tell us that while painting might not be in the center of our cultural discussion, it can only be pronounced “dead” when all the things it was invented to answer have been answered.”

With the opening of the de Kooning show, the largest of its kind, it’s impossible not to look back and laugh at Julian Schnabel’s undeserved, 1987 Whitney Museum retrospective. Schnabel is an American painter, now mostly a filmmaker, who took the world by storm in the 1980s and was famously lambasted by Robert Hughes, then the world’s best-known art critic. Schnabel, who never learned to draw and whose attempts at painting are now only defended by people who are stuck with their ill-considered purchases of his works, could never have existed without de Kooning and his colleagues, who opened doors for every American painter who came after them. Schnabel was 37 when he received the honor that de Kooning, dead for almost 15 years, is only receiving now. When de Kooning was 37 he was starving to death in New York, living without citizenship, worrying about being deported, and according to some accounts, surviving on a diet of ketchup and booze and had never had a one-artist exhibition. He didn’t live comfortably off his art until he was in his mid-50s, and according to Jerry Saltz, senior art critic for New York magazine, didn’t own a telephone until the 1970s.

As for the death of painting, interest in this show, which is set to become a blockbuster, shows that the death certificate was signed prematurely, as painters Terry Winters and Anselm Kiefer clearly know. Moreover, the questions de Kooning posed with his work: over how far into Abstract Expressionism an artist had to drift in order to create a contemporary, visual language (not as far as Pollock, in de Kooning’s case); how much of Modernism was about the past and the future, both of which were embraced by the painter; and how much viscerality a painting could contain without losing its beauty, have still not been answered. Those issues cannot be resolved through the pre-fabricated, made-to-order, totem poles of spectacle created by later, “post-Modern” artists such as Jeff Koons or the bad taxidermy of Damien Hirst. They arose through painting and must be answered in pigment on canvas.

De Kooning went after the aforementioned visual language over many decades, working up sketches that would become meticulously planned paintings that nonetheless, had the look of lightning-bolt “Action Painting.” And he did create a way of speaking that is inescapable today.

One can’t be fluent in the language of contemporary art without knowing de Kooning’s work. His line, swift, strangely calligraphic, and often thrown like a twisting left hook, is recognizable from across the largest museum galleries. His colors, and the forms they create, are impossible to duplicate. His representations of women, polemic, disturbing, but in the end, mostly innocent, took Picasso’s earlier, misogynistic approaches to the same subject, and increased their force, without collapsing into utter machismo.

It is, of course, absurd to talk about de Kooning and Schabel, Hirst or Koons in the same context. It can only be done as an exercise in contrast, placing the pure motives and terrible sacrifices of the first artist, who arrived penniless in New York after fleeing his home in Rottingdam Harbor and became the most important post-war artist in America, against the publicity-driven bling-blang idols to 80s-style materialism of the latter three.

The essential question then, as Saltz said in a recent article leading up to the MOMA show, is what to do with painting in 2011, now that half the world has offered eulogies for the ancient, and implicitly immortal craft.

Said Saltz: “This show can tell us that while painting might not be in the center of our cultural discussion, it can only be pronounced “dead” when all the things it was invented to answer have been answered.”

John Sevigny

John Sevigny is a photographer, teacher, writer, and curator, who lives in Central America.

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