Willem de Kooning’s Italian Holiday

The artist’s exhibition at Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, transcends the limitations of era, nation and culture

BY Evan Moffitt in Exhibition Reviews | 03 MAY 24

Willem de Kooning came to Venice a cuckold. In 1959, the Dutch émigré left the US for the first time in 33 years to meet his lover, the artist Ruth Kligman, only to discover she was seeing another man. Dejected, he headed south to Rome, before returning to New York a week later. Still, something about Italy remained with him. He would come back twice within a decade for extended stays. The work that bookended these visits forms the basis of ‘Willem de Kooning and Italy’, an exhibition which – against the nationalist backdrop of the Venice Biennale – unsurprisingly stakes a territorial claim. Despite a confusing chronology, the show makes a strong case for the master’s preoccupation with Italian Renaissance art, while skirting the desire and repulsion in his depictions of the female figure from the same period.

Willem de Kooning, ‘Willem de Kooning and Italy’, 2024, installation view. Courtesy: The Willem de Kooning Foundation, SIAE; photograph: Matteo de Fina

Hostess (1973), enthroned at the opening of the exhibition, receives visitors with a sardonic welcome. With her elongated, raised arms and feet entwined like copulating eels, the nearly life-sized bronze could be a mermaid gesturing animatedly with a cigarette, or giving the middle finger. Although produced after De Kooning’s final visit to Italy in 1969, the sculpture is presented as a kind of hangover from that Roman holiday, when the artist was invited to experiment with the medium in a friend’s foundry. His first early, small-scale attempts in bronze-cast clay, several of which appear in a later gallery, were not well-received by his dealer, Xavier Fourcade, who flatly told the artist they were ‘not good’. It’s an opinion that seems to have stuck, and in least a few cases, Fourcade was right: Untitled #3 and #4 (both 1969), for instance, resemble puerile Play-Doh extrusions.

De Kooning’s most successful paintings were often his most abstract, but the opposite seems to be true of his sculptures, many of which evoke a comic sense of deflation. Several bronze ‘Heads’ from 1972–73 merge the stateliness of Agamemnon’s death mask with the pathetic bathos of Honoré Daumier’s busts. His best sculptures, like Hostess and Clamdigger (1972), have wobbly, flailing limbs as if they were swimming, or dancing the shimmy. If there’s a joke there, its subject is unclear – though it’s free of the grotesque ribaldry in De Kooning’s famous paintings of female figures.

Willem de Kooning, Clamdigger, 1972, bronze, 151 × 63 × 54 cm. Courtesy: The Willem de Kooning Foundation, SIAE; Centre Pompidou, Paris Musée national d’art moderne/ Centre de création industrielle

One of those, Woman on a Sign II (1967), is on display here. Legs spread, she’s slowly sinking into her oversized haunches, labia and buttocks underlined in red, the colour of menstrual blood. And the sign? De Kooning’s, of course, his large Hancock scrawled beneath her genitalia like a chauvinist’s staking claim. All sex, the painting manages to shock less than the much earlier Woman I (1950) with her gnashing incisors.

Woman on a Sign II appears in a gallery with a selection of wholly abstract and semi-figurative paintings which may or may not have anything to do with Italy. True, there’s A Tree in Naples (1960) and Villa Borghese (1960), which show few signs of their referents in broad brushstrokes, all shoulder and no wrist – but also the radiant Door to the River (1960), which sounds like a view of Venice but more likely depicts the artist’s former studio at Coenties Slip, New York. Three ‘Abstract Parkway Landscapes’ (1957–58), painted before De Kooning visited Italy and referring to tree-lined boulevards in New York seen from a moving car, are a befuddling inclusion here. Several abstract scenes from the artist’s home in Sag Harbor, such as Pirate (1981) and North Atlantic Light (1977), evoke the tempestuous waters of Long Island Sound far more than the relatively placid Venetian lagoon.

Willem de Kooning, Pirate (Untitled II), 1981, oil on canvas, 2.2 × 1.9 m. Courtesy: The Willem de Kooning Foundation, SIAE; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection Fund

The show’s rubric leaves viewers to wonder which works were made where, as if that were what really mattered. In fact, De Kooning’s engagement with Italy long predates his ever having travelled there. In a 1949 talk at New York’s Studio 35 titled ‘The Renaissance and Order’, the artist explained that Renaissance artists – contrary to the claims of many art historians – weren’t interested in illusionary tricks. ‘It wasn’t as if he [sic] were standing in front of his canvas and needed to imagine how deep the world could be’, he said. ‘The world was deep already.’ Rather than some kind of ideal order, De Kooning found in the Italian cinquecento a realism he sought to imitate in his own radically modern way. Of the Venetian Old Masters, like Tintoretto, he noted that ‘[t]he more painting developed, in that time, the more it started shaking with excitement.’ No surprise, then, that all of the works in the exhibition vibrate with such epileptic intensity. These observations reveal that De Kooning’s interest in Italian art was rooted in iconoclasm and was less engaged with the harmonious symmetries of Renaissance paintings than the way they sought to evoke human perceptions of the natural world.

Willem de Kooning, ‘Willem de Kooning and Italy’, 2024, installation view. Courtesy: The Willem de Kooning Foundation, SIAE; photograph: Matteo de Fina

‘Willem de Kooning and Italy’ gave me the lasting impression of an artist totally unconcerned with aesthetic fashion, timelessly out of sync with his time. Rather than pursue a coherent philosophy of figuration or abstraction, De Kooning was obsessed with the challenge of making the essence of particular images or scenes – ‘glimpses’, he often called them – come alive. Even his most non-representational paintings cover up figurative underdrawings, and the many figurative drawings on view seem to melt into air. The comedy in many of these works seems to arise from the near futility of this enterprise, but you can’t help admiring the artist for his tenacity. But a handful of works in ‘Willem de Kooning and Italy’ prove that he was able to momentarily transcend those limitations –  leaving era, nation and culture behind.

‘Willem de Kooning and Italy' is on view at Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice, until 1 November

Main image:Willem de Kooning, Screams of Children Come from Seagulls (Untitled XX) (detail), 1975, oil on canvas, 2 × 2.2 m. Courtesy: The Willem de Kooning Foundation, SIAE and Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland

Evan Moffitt is a writer, editor and critic based in New York, USA.