De Kooning and Fluxus at New York MoMA: A Review of a Tribute to Rogue Art

por: Ralph Vazquez

“Everything was put into question following the avalanche of revolutions from Impressionism to Dadaism and Surrealism. We are barely beginning to realize the full significance of this, and to see what extent this questioning has made the epoch in which we live a particularly exciting one. For centuries, if not millennia, evolution could not be perceived for the slowness of its pace, artistic [and ethical-esthetic] problems were of no concern, nothing arose unexpectedly, and one was sure to know the direction one was moving in. Then, the entire system of décor, based on certitudes, collapsed, and the ossified and ossifying false order of the past gave way to a fruitful and exhilarating anarchy that, having gained momentum, is now moving toward a new order, a new system of notions commensurate with our potential. It is unheard-of to know that one is headed toward the unknown [which should always be the case for creators]. In the words of Saint John of the Cross, “To reach the unknown, you must pass through the unknown.” Academicism–finished for good, isn’t it?”

-Michel Tapié, Art of Another Kind, 1952

The story of art can be cruel in its judgement, ignoring sometimes the work of truly genial artists that, to their disadvantage, are not part of the social circus of galleries and museums. This of course is not the case of Willem de Kooning, this painter was at the top of the social heap of Abstract Expressionism in New York City in the movement’s denouement in the decades from the forties to the sixties. His name, in the annals of American Modern art is second only to Pollock, and this is due to an issue of provenance exclusively – Pollock was all American, from the Midwest and a pioneer in a brand new visual language, while de Kooning, although also the bearer of the light of retinean geniality, was of European origin. The truth in retrospect is that both heralded American Modernism in painting and forged a presence for American art across the Western world. De Kooning has also paved the way for generations of painters who seeking refuge in the purity of his work have expanded his contribution to the heroic history of the medium of painting. No institutionally educated abstract painter today can deny that they have had intimations with the work of de Kooning at some point.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997) Woman, 1950 Oil, cut and pasted paper on cardboard 14 3/4 x 11 5/8″ (37.5 x 29.5 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. From the Collection of Thomas B. Hess, Gift of the heirs of Thomas B. Hess, 1984 © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

At the MoMA retrospective exhibit, the work of de Kooning was laid out in a compelling narrative that takes us from the artist’s early work mirroring European Modern aesthetes to the development of a new visual style, accomplished in collaboration with the greatest painters of the New York scene in the forties and fifties.  From Hans Hoffmann to Philip Guston they all conveyed ideas about the process of painting, and each drew a step closer to doing away with the formalities of classic art or easel painting; what they wanted to do was boil off all the water and conserve the fundamentals of the act of painting itself. The contribution to this process by de Kooning was not small, and this is manifest in the curator’s selection of works, which serve to peel away the layers of Abstract Expressionism and reveal its fleshy interior. Something that pervades throughout the exhibition galleries where the retrospective is laid out is the energy and the freedom with which de Kooning impregnated his work. The main attraction of the retrospective was the work titled Excavation, the largest canvas painted by de Kooning, which showcased a galaxy of techniques developed by the artist in the decades before. The work is a crowning achievement not just because of its scale, but also because of the exquisite detailing the artist performed. It is a layered amalgam of textures from which you seem to almost have to ‘excavate’ meaning. The exhibit also included sculptural work by de Kooning, that although not as well known as his paintings were also groundbreaking because of the transference of the distortion of form, which is his trademark, from the two-dimensional to the three-dimensional.

Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands, 1904–1997) Excavation, 1950 Oil and enamel on canvas 81 x 100 1/4 in. (205.7 x 254.6 cm) The Art Institute of Chicago. Mr. and Mrs. Frank G. Logan Purchase Prize Fund; restricted gifts of Edgar J. Kaufmann, Jr., and Mr. and Mrs. Noah Goldowsky, Jr. © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands. 1904-1997) Clam Digger 1972 Bronze 59 1/2 x 29 5/8 x 23 3/4″ (151.1 x 75.2 x 60.3 cm) Private collection © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

On another level of the Museum, the MoMA curators organized an exhibit of Fluxus art that seemed to almost mock the rest of the art at in the museum, in the most artistic way possible of course. It is also true that these artists, united by the desire to do away with the academia in favor of a more anarchic and mediatic type of art making, were also top dogs in the art scene in New York in the sixties and seventies. The exhibit is titled Thing/Thought: Fluxus Editions, 1962–1978, and its corpus is basically a showcase of the group’s antics, which sought to dismantle the seemingly built in elitism of the art world. Central to these efforts was the work of designer George Maciunas, and it was he who organized the content of many of the kits that where opened up by the curators for our viewing. The exhibit included the work of Yoko Ono, George Brecht, Willem de Ridder among others. Among the highlights of this exhibit we can find the work titled Eyeblink (1966)  by Yoko Ono and Smoke (1966) by Joe Jones. These Fluxfilms paved the way for video art in the later decades and forged a presence for experimental film within the art community who sought to expand to new technological frontiers.

Fluxus Manifesto. 1963. Offset. Edited, designed, and produced by George Maciunas. 8 3/16 x 5 11/16″ (20.8 x 14.5 cm). The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008

Both of these exhibits talk about key moments in the history of American art, and many of the works seen in both have served as source works in the investigations done by millions of artists over the last 80 years. Duchamp delineated the terms for art that is compelling exclusively to the eye, and sought to liberate art from the dictatorship of the retina. This polarization, stated by Duchamp, transformed art in such a way that it created a sort of schism, where the technicians and conceptuals have taken sides in the arguments that have characterized art in the last century and are determining the course of art in the current one. Considering Duchamp as a central axis it is easy to see how the poles of his arguments are seen laid out, in the American art historical context, in the de Kooning and Fluxus exhibits, and how each has led to many a revolution in the art made after World War II.

De Kooning was a painter (thus a technician), in direct discourse with the history of the fine art of painting. His deformations and fusions of form and background were a kind of refusal of the traditional methods of painting, but still part of its history as it still meant to mix pigment and a binding agent and applying over a surface for the eyes to see. Fluxus (with a more conceptual focus; where the idea comes before the object) on the other hand made objects that required handling, and rummaging through. Like Duchamp’s Boites en Valise the Fluxkits were full of precious and gorgeous little riddles and pranks, and they also seemed to waive any need to connect with any of the traditional languages of art, essentially painting, sculpture and graphic arts at the time. They would most likely have skipped going to a de Kooning opening, and de Kooning would have most likely thought the Fluxus crew were a bunch of theory-heads who had no technical abilities and so sought to get away with art that was smart-alecky. The critic Clement Greenberg, champion of de Kooning and Pollock, was skeptical of the possibilities of conceptual art and the art of Fluxus, and there was kind of a polar atmosphere in the art criticism scene of the sixties in regards to what was and how one can be avant-garde. The same argument, in infinite gradations, variations and configurations, is found today in art schools and contemporary art galleries across the country. They all exist under the common label of informal or post-Modern art though, because they exist to satisfy the need for art that exceeds human or historical expectation, thus creating a point of chaos that in turn feeds and expands culture instead of validate or seek refuge in traditional values (hence the term rogue in this review’s title).

Art has come a long way since the days of Velazquez, Manet, and the onset of the Industrial Revolution, and the MoMA is a testament to that history. In the two exhibits on view now they showcase a birds eye view of art in a moment of dynamic transition between America, Europe and Asia, where art and art making was thought to have traveled as far as it could ever travel, and how all it did was gain momentum to break even more ground as we progress into the 21st century.

Both exhibits feed a love for the art of the last century, and one cannot escape the realization that they form part of the ancestry of a lot of what we see in art today. From the retrospective to the Fluxfilms both exhibits elicit a love for multimedia art and art that challenges convention above everything else. From sex to the innocuous act of blinking the exhibits run the gamut of bodily and spiritual metaphors, and explore a variety of ways of expressing those emotions. They are sure to exhilarate all young artists and the avant-gardists in general, because they mark a period where what we know and take for granted today was revolutionary.

Both exhibits will remain on view for the remainder of the year until January 2012, so if in the vicinity of the city of New York do not miss the opportunity to see both of these exhibits.

Thanks to the MoMA’s Press Image Center for their permission to publish the photographs embedded in this review.

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