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Oil and Water: De Kooning in His Studio

Richard Shiff, Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art and professor of history of art, University of Texas at Austin. The exhibition Willem de Kooning: Paintings, on view at the National Gallery of Art from May 8 to September 5, 1994, was presented in honor of the artist’s 90th birthday. The exhibition included 76 paintings that spanned de Kooning’s career from the 1930s to the mid-1980s. In this lecture recorded on May 29, 1994, catalogue author Richard Shiff highlights four aspects of the artist’s career. First, Shiff explores de Kooning’s involvement with change: he thought of himself as always evolving, and his work could not be classified under a single style. Second, Shiff describes the physicality of de Kooning’s work: the artist became involved with materials of real substance and engaged his body with these materials by pushing, pulling, and physically manipulating them. Third, Shiff shares how to look at and think about de Kooning’s figures and representations, which initially might not be recognizable.  Fourth, de Kooning resisted any description of himself more elaborate than painter: here Shiff addresses de Kooning’s objections to abstract art—even though he made abstract work, he did not consider himself an abstractionist.