Lost in New York: painter and critic Alexander Adams discovers an unlikely empathy between Ingres and de Kooning

De Kooning: Pink Angels

New York City, home to great collections of art, is never short of key works by important artists to measure against one another. Autumn 2011, three displays have coincided to allow people to compare the skills of a modern master with those of a predecessor who influenced him. Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) revered J.A.D. Ingres (1780-1867) for both his devotion to the human figure and technical skill (in drawing especially). De Kooning vowed he would never paint a tree and his art never strayed too far from the portrait or nude, even at its most abstracted. Likewise, Ingres never manifested much interest in landscape and still-life either. Both painters were noted by peers as being consummate painters of flesh, principally female.

MoMA claim that De Kooning: A Retrospective (until 9 January) is the “first major museum exhibition devoted to the full scope of the career of Willem de Kooning”. As the current survey includes work from 1983-7 not included in a much larger 1983 retrospective shown in Berlin and New York (the current show has 195 works, the earlier one had 280) the press release is technically accurate while being a touch grandiloquent.

Filling the sixth floor of the new MoMA building for the first time, the retrospective provides some surprises and confirms some expectations. (Incidentally, the airy building is both impressive and a sympathetic environment for art.) Firstly, the confirmations: de Kooning could be a great draughtsman. The traditional still-life made at Rotterdam’s Academie is intensely detailed and meticulously observed yet remains vivid and not at all dry. The small pencil drawings in the style of Ingres are effective and memorable. The celebrated paintings of the late 1950s (Door to the River, Suburb in Havana, Gotham News, etc.), which display wide brush marks and acute angles on large canvases, tend towards the dry, vacant and bombastic. The pastels are not successful; their shapes are too diffuse and lack colour intensity.

Secondly, the surprises: de Kooning went through a Matissean phase in the late 1920s following a January 1927 encounter with the French master’s work. The few surviving paintings are highly keyed still-lifes using deep blue and patterning. Another insight is that de Kooning’s early delicacy was not entirely submerged and was occasionally called on later. Clam Diggers (1963) is a creamy, lush oil on card, 51 x 37cms, showing two nude blondes. The colour of the ground forms a sandy surround and oil paint performs as flesh substitute è soft, tactile and alluring. It is a shame de Kooning did not return to this small size and chromatic simplicity more often.

Excavation (1950) drew many viewers, who lost themselves in its swerving, enfolding curves and bejewelled glints among the creamy folds. The interlocking fragments of figures Ingresque and Hellenistic jostle and mesh, animating the picture plane but showing relatively little pictorial depth. It is endlessly seething and – to my eye – is pictorially richer than the women that followed. Five of the great Second Women Series make a memorable sequence at the centre of the display. Woman (1948) is a precursor to the most violently coloured and executed Woman I (1950-2) in MoMA’s collection. The catalogue writers fail to note the influence of Max Beckmann on the stark graphic quality of the orange-segment mouths and eyes during the 1940s. Likewise, the influence of John Marin is overlooked. John Marin was one of the early American Modernists who made semi-Cubist compositions of urban scenes in watercolour and charcoal. He was lionised until he was eclipsed by the Abstract Expressionists and was extremely influential, even representing the USA at the Venice Biennale of 1950 (alongside de Kooning and Pollock). He is now largely neglected and his jauntily angled views of New York with insipid colouring and insistent charcoal delineations are simultaneously crude and tepid. The star form on the top right of Woman (1948) is very characteristic of Marin’s