Behind the Scenes of MoMA’s de Kooning Retrospective
This month, for the first time since its 2004 redesign, the Museum of Modern Art will turn over its entire sixth floor to a single artist. The one so honored is Willem de Kooning, the reluctant Abstract Expressionist whose career was a lightning rod and whose late-period legacy has been the subject of intense debate and competition for more than two decades. The retrospective, opening September 18, will include almost 200 works and will be accompanied by a 500-page catalogue with some 700 images.
The first retrospective since de Kooning’s death in 1997, it will give us our first opportunity to experience the artist from start to almost-finish, beginning with academic paintings made in Holland in 1916–17 and ending in 1987, the year de Kooning’s longtime dealer Xavier Fourcade died and three years before de Kooning, who suffered from Alzheimer’s during the last decade of his life, put down his paintbrush for the last time. It will trace the artist’s evolution from the figurative and black-and-white paintings of the 1940s through the “Woman” series of 1950–53 to the large gestural abstractions of the ’70s and the ’80s, as he transformed painting by compulsively articulating his process and contorting pictorial space.
“In many periods de Kooning wanted to create difficulties in order to be inventive,” says John Elderfield, the museum’s chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture, who organized the retrospective. “Right from the start of his career, it’s not something as passive as chance. It’s not Duchamp dropping a thread. It’s extraordinary work where the discipline is relaxed right at the last moment. De Kooning was so well trained, such an obsessive technician, and yet he was willing to let go of it.”
A number of agents, aside from the artist, are involved in making and maintaining an artist’s career: dealer, curator, collector, lawyer, and (perhaps increasingly less so) critic. With a deceased artist, there are also heirs. These people are motivated by different (and sometimes conflicting) considerations, among them the desire for recognition, power, control, and remuneration.
De Kooning was declared unfit to handle his affairs 22 years ago, shortly after the death of his wife, Elaine. From that time, information ceased to be available about artworks in his possession, including those still being worked on. His oeuvre was controlled primarily by Lisa de Kooning, his only child and heir; attorney John Eastman, the son of de Kooning’s longtime attorney Lee Eastman; and John Silberman, an attorney who represented Lisa and Eastman in their court application to be appointed as de Kooning’s conservators and later represented his estate. Lisa, Eastman, and Silberman largely determined how the artist’s works were cared for, exhibited, and sold during the last eight years of his life and after his death at the age of 92.
De Kooning’s life was full of intrigue and struggle—from his incessant artistic manipulations to his scandalous love affairs, bouts with alcoholism, and continuing efforts to paint in his later years despite his dementia. Equally contentious was the management of his career after he was declared mentally incompetent and of his legacy after his death—particularly the sale of the works he created, aided to varying degrees by his assistants, while he suffered from Alzheimer’s.
After de Kooning’s death, Lisa and Eastman became co-executors of his estate, and, in an effort to protect the market for his work, they won a court order to seal details about the estate’s contents. They directed the dispersal of works in de Kooning’s possession at the time of his death and created the Willem de Kooning Foundation, which was established in 2001 and received a portion of the collection not sold or kept by Lisa.
After decades of determining how best to create museum exposure and market demand for de Kooning’s late works (many of which were still in the artist’s studio after his death), to provide Lisa with financial security, and to promote and protect de Kooning’s legacy, the MoMA retrospective is a personal victory for the individuals charged with de Kooning’s care 22 years ago.