Shaping de Kooning’s Legacy

Behind the scenes of the artist’s long-awaited retrospective at MoMA are not only curators but also dealers, lawyers, collectors, and heirs.

Excavation, 1950, from the MoMA exhibition.


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.

“We’re feeling great. We’re really happy,” says Silberman, who in addition to being Lisa’s attorney is president of the foundation. “The foundation approached the Museum of Modern Art and suggested that this be something they consider doing. There has not been a major retrospective for a very long time.”

“We’ve pushed so hard for this,” says Eastman, who adds that he also played a key role in securing a show of de Kooning’s late work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and a paintings survey at the National Gallery of Art in the mid-1990s. (Lisa declined to be interviewed.)

Elderfield says he has had many conversations over the years about a possible retrospective with Eastman and Silberman, who, with attorney Donn Zaretsky, are the foundation’s trustees. About six years ago, Elderfield agreed that the time was right. Silberman arranged for Elderfield and Lisa to meet at a coffee shop in Manhattan.

“It would have been impossible, or at least unseemly,” says Elderfield, “to do something without Lisa’s support.” Elderfield was given full access to the foundation’s records detailing de Kooning’s lifelong output and the current whereabouts of his works, and was assured loans of works owned by Lisa and the foundation.

The retrospective, which will devote more space to the works of the ’40s and ’50s than any other period, will provide the first opportunity to see the late-’80s paintings in the context of de Kooning’s entire career. When he died in 1997, a survey of his late paintings was on view at MoMA. The traveling exhibition, which originated at the SFMOMA, included works that were made as late as 1987, a cut-off date arrived at by a panel of curators, scholars, and artists, who concluded that de Kooning’s 1989 and 1990 works were not fully realized.

While some 1988 works have since been exhibited at the Gagosian Gallery and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, then–MoMA curator Robert Storr noted in the 1997 exhibition catalogue that after 1987 de Kooning’s “mental lapses became acute.” Of the exclusion of 1988–90 paintings from the MoMA retrospective, Elderfield says, “It was really a hard decision not to go beyond 1987. I felt a little apprehensive ending up with the same decision as the late-works show but I do think that it is the right decision, at least for this exhibition. The pictures after ’87 are a different species of painting. They are transitional to something else that never happened. I didn’t want to end on a lesser note.”

Last September, around the time Elderfield and his curatorial team were making their final choices for the retrospective, Lisa attended Arne Glimcher’s party celebrating the 50th anniversary of his Pace Gallery. At the party, she informed Glimcher that she wanted Pace to assume representation of her collection, commonly referred to as the “de Kooning estate,” which had been with Gagosian Gallery for the last seven years. “I think Lisa needed more attention,” says Glimcher. (Larry Gagosian did not respond to a request for comment.)

Rather than choose a single dealer to represent de Kooning after Fourcade’s death, the conservators sold works through a number of dealers, including Matthew Marks and Lucy Mitchell-Innes, who later corepresented the estate until 2003, when it was closed out and the works were divided between Lisa and the foundation. Of the decision not to choose a successor to Fourcade during the last decade of de Kooning’s life, Eastman says, “It wasn’t about doing commercial shows. It was about museum exposure. We weren’t interested in selling the work. We sold some pictures at a discount to collectors who agreed to leave them to major museums. With any artist, the work itself is key. You want to keep as much of it as you can.”

When the estate was closed, in 2003, the foundation received 1,344 works, valued at $53.7 million. Lisa received works of an unspecified quantity and value and began collaborating with Gagosian to exhibit and sell them. “A lot of the good things are picked over,” says a source familiar with Lisa’s collection, which primarily contains paintings from the ’60s through the late ’80s. “The de Kooning estate is really just a name. There is volume but not necessarily quality.”

The foundation’s collection—which contains works of all periods, predominantly works on paper and a collection of paintings from the 1960s onward, including a significant number of 1980s paintings—is thought to be considerably more valuable than its initial valuation. This collection has never been represented by a dealer.

According to its IRS filings, three years ago the foundation sold a 1987 painting for $3.4 million (reported inventory value: $199,750); around the same time, it sold a 1984 painting for $3.9 million (reported inventory value: $246,750). Silberman won’t disclose who bought the works but says that the foundation does not sell to dealers or at auction.
Since its establishment in 2001, the foundation has sold 18 works for a total of $13 million. Silberman says that works are sold to pay for the administration of the foundation—whose stated purpose is to catalogue and maintain its own collection and archive and facilitate museum exhibitions and scholarly research about de Kooning. (Or, as Eastman describes its mission: “De Kooning is the greatest American artist ever. Prove it.”)

The foundation has also donated a total of $260,100 in charitable gifts and grants to organizations such as the Long Island Children’s Museum, Guild Hall, and the Springs Improvement Society. The foundation, according to Silberman, plans to produce a catalogue raisonné but is not involved in the authentication of works.

Three months after de Kooning was declared mentally incompetent by a Long Island judge, in 1989, his 1955 painting Interchange sold for $20.7 million, at the time the highest price paid at auction for a work by a living artist. Five years ago, when hedge-fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen purchased Woman III, directly from Hollywood entertainment mogul David Geffen (the current owner of Interchange and a number of other major works by the artist), de Kooning became one of a handful of artists whose individual works have sold for more than $100 million.

Woman III, which Geffen had acquired in 1994 from the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in exchange for a 16th-century Persian manuscript, will be included in the retrospective alongside the five other paintings that make up the acclaimed third “Woman” series (1950–53). Among the paintings in the series is the MoMA-owned Woman I, whose creation—involving an obsessive process of sketching, drawing, painting, and repainting—Thomas Hess chronicled in ARTnews in March 1953.

Glimcher is lending a 1952 vellum study for Woman I that he purchased some 30 years ago. “There is paint on the back of it. De Kooning stuck it to the painting and painted the picture according to that drawing,” he says. “What an interesting way to work. The act of painting—all of the decisions being made—are all there.”

The current record for a de Kooning at auction is the $27 million paid for Untitled XXV (1977) in 2006. Market sources attribute the escalation in value for works of the 1970s to the $10.7 million purchase of Untitled (1977), also in the retrospective, by market setter Cohen in 2005 and the support and enthusiasm of dealer Robert Mnuchin, who bid on the painting on Cohen’s behalf at Christie’s and has been a major collector of de Kooning since he became a client of Fourcade’s while still an equity trader with Goldman Sachs. Cohen, Mnuchin, and Mnuchin’s wife, Adriana, are among the sponsors of the MoMA retrospective.

When Mnuchin converted his Upper East Side town house into the C&M Gallery (now L&M Arts) in 1993, his first exhibition was of de Kooning’s 1975–79 paintings. “I saw a high percentage of the ’70s and ’80s works,” says Mnuchin, who owns de Koonings dating up to 1986. “I was deeply involved in seeing them from the studio, through Fourcade, and out into the world.”

Elderfield and Mnuchin, who is lending Untitled I (1977) and a 1984 painting to the retrospective, were among the attendees at the opening of Pace’s first exhibition of de Kooning’s work—a selection of paintings and sculptures from the 1960s and ’70s—after Glimcher won representation of Lisa’s collection. The show opened the week before the start of the major New York auction season this past May, when a number of de Koonings were on the block, including a 1986 painting, Untitled VII. It sold for $4.28 million at Sotheby’s, demonstrating how far the market for 1980s works has come in the last two decades. Richard Gray Gallery had difficulty selling works from that period for $175,000 to $225,000 in 1987.

Today, de Kooning’s most controversial paintings may be the works of the late ’80s, but in the ’50s it was his grotesquely manic “Woman” paintings that confused and distressed many critics and in the ’60s it was his fluid and fleshy pastel conflations of bodies and landscapes that led to claims that he was washed up. “It’s extraordinary the amount of controversy that has attached to his career from 1950 onwards,” says Elderfield. “From the ‘Woman’ pictures on, there have been people who have said, It’s all over.”
Throughout the artist’s career, Elderfield says, “there is the sense that de Kooning was a painter who constructed things and who knew how to build.” In the 1930s and ’40s he began to use large pieces of tracing paper to transfer one picture to the next, a practice he continued into the ’70s and ’80s. “He’s taking one thing and moving it into something else during this whole period,” says Elderfield. “There is a sense of interchangeability. He is making abstract and representational paintings at the same time. He doesn’t actually alternate.”

A major theme of the retrospective will be the development of de Kooning’s treatment of pictorial space, culminating in the later paintings, created in the compromised circumstances of his last years. “One is far more aware of how the space is buckling and moving back and forward,” says Elderfield of the late ’80s paintings.
“There is a sense of being slightly unmoored despite that first sense of calm and serenity. I think it is possible to relate some of this to his condition, where the absolute sense and subjectivity, which one has in all of his previous pictures, is taken away.”

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