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Not the Willem DeKooning Retrospective (Not Even Close)

Willem DeKooning, Excavation (1950) oil on canvas

Yesterday at work I bumped into this piece by Donald Kuspit on DeKooning's retrospective over at Artnet. Then this morning I bumped into this one on L Magazine's site, by Paddy Johnson. I don't know that Paddy Johnson demystifies DeKooning as much as she takes issue with his pallet, declaring it repetitive and boorish en masse. By contrast, Donald Kuspit writes an article painting DeKooning as a sadistic brute inextricably tied to the modern tradition in general and Picasso specifically. Together they make for some interesting reading, particularly as Kuspit never addresses the show itself in favor of drawing his conclusions from individual works. While Johnson seems to wear the show like an imaginary wool shawl, noting it's uncomfortable, out of style, and the zipper is broken. But she doesn't seem to get to a place that addresses what was actually there either, only what she felt was missing or to her mind was poorly executed.
Still it is interesting that they both portray DeKooning as essentially broken or flawed as a human being and by the end of his life as an artist. Yet in their characterization there exists several miles between what these writers perceive these flaws to mean in the face of the work that he created and the program that the MoMA presents. Its this spectacular geography between the two writers and what it is they perceive that to me is so engaging. Of the two, Kuspit is the more willing to make pronouncements about the artist and his work. While Johnson seems to avoid offering similar definition to DeKooning in favor of critiquing the institution and its presentation of his corpus.
The information available in the space between these 2 articles is not exclusive to DeKooning, his life, work, or the retrospective either. Each article portrays a lucid impression of it's respective audience and their expectations regarding institution and its function. They also percolate a few thoughts about the sizable generational gap that informs the writers definitions of art and its practice. I don't believe either writer is particularly right or wrong for their part. Personally I haven't seen the retrospective so I'm not about to judge it. I also don't maintain strong opinions about either writer, whereas I read Johnson more often, while some of Kuspit's catalog essays are favorite reads again and again.
This is really about the dwindling dead tree space that critical dialogue occupies. That the form of this dialogue is changing in the face of new media demands as the language itself evolves. Kuspit and Johnson are interesting here as they are at different ends of their respective careers speaking to different readers in the space of this evolution. I don't know that anything is crystallized by either one, but reading both is a bit like making the same trip by train and then by car. Different details in the landscape are made obviously more rich or poor by ones experience of time and presence in them. Regardless of what their stance might be, taken together they are offering an ephemeral view of change itself. While I've likely made this journey millions of times, it wasn't until this morning that I recognized that I'd been here before. That I should look around a bit and maybe get some snapshots before I moved on.


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