Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
Property from a Prominent Private Collection
Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)

Event in a Barn

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
Event in a Barn
signed 'de Kooning' (lower right)
oil, enamel and paper collage on paper mounted on board
24 5/8 x 33 in. (62.5 x 83.8 cm.)
Executed in 1947.
Mr. Lawrence Heller
E. V. Thaw & Co., Inc., New York
Allan Stone, New York, 1965
His sale; Sotheby's, New York, 9 May 2011, lot 11
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
S. Yard, Willem de Kooning: The First Twenty-Six Years in New York, New York, 1986, pp. XV and 164, no. 186 (illustrated).
Willem de Kooning: Slipping Glimpses 1920s to 1960s, exh. cat., New York, Allan Stone Gallery, 2006, p. 7 (illustrated in color).
Washington, D.C., Workshop Art Center Gallery, Retrospective (de Kooning 1935-53), June-July 1953.
Houston, University of St. Thomas Art Department, Six Painters: Mondrian, Guston, Kline, de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko, February-April 1967, p. 50, no. 37 (illustrated in color).
Detroit, J. L. Hudson Gallery, Willem de Kooning: Three Decades of Painting, March-April 1968.
New York, Allan Stone Gallery, Willem de Kooning: Liquefying Cubism, October 1994-January 1995, pl. 24 (illustrated in color).
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, Picasso and American Art, September 2006-September 2007, pp. 218-219 and 385, pl. 116 (illustrated in color).
Sale room notice
This Lot is Withdrawn.

Brought to you by

Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis

Lot Essay

Painted in 1947, Willem de Kooning’s Event in a Barn belongs to a small group of early paintings created between 1945 and 1950. Beginning with Pink Angels, circa 1945 (Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation, Los Angeles), and followed by Labyrinth and Judgment Day of 1946 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), and finally culminating in Excavation of 1950 (Art Institute of Chicago), de Kooning developed a unique pictorial language of abstract forms that he refined and perfected over the course of several years. “I think the period from 1945 to 1950 is just one of the great adventures of modern American painting,” the curator of de Kooning’s most recent retrospective, John Elderfield, has said. “It’s really extraordinary to see what he’s doing” (J. Elderfield, 2011 quoted in “Art: in Conversation,” in The Brooklyn Rail, via www.brooklynrail.org).

Indeed, this group of paintings are now considered among his most critically-acclaimed work and Event in a Barn typifies de Kooning’s concerns during this important and formative period. Using sweeping and forceful movements of the brush, de Kooning delineates curvaceous fragments of the female body that have been flattened and shattered in prism-like arrangements that echo Cubism. Viewpoints shift and the sense of place is distorted, and yet the eye moves readily throughout, delightfully tracing the movements of the artist’s brush. Working in stages, he scrapes, paints over, and obliterates earlier progress so that the surface of the painting remains animated and alive with the evidence of his working method. This era marks the very beginning of Abstract Expressionism, and Event in a Barn provides a window into its earliest development.

In Event in a Barn, de Kooning creates an intimate, action-packed scene that’s organized within a rectangular format. A series of squares in the upper left seem to indicate a window, and this conveys a sense of enclosed, interior space. The lower row of windows reveal scraped layers, collaged elements and overpainted sections in which various tones of grey, black, and tarnished yellow allow the viewer to look through the window into the receding distance. This aspect is complicated, however, by de Kooning’s use of broad yellow strokes to paint out and obliterate several sides of the windows themselves, making the sense of space shift, protract and distort. In some instances, the yellow remains resolutely on top of the surface, and yet in other areas—particularly in the lower right—it recedes into the background. The black lines that outline and delineate many of the voluptuous feminine forms play a similar role: the pink oval is rendered in thick, black outlines, but elsewhere the black line works independently, breaking free in lyrical sweeps of the brush. “Fundamental to these and other abstractions of these years is the multiplicity of possible roles of a brushstroke,” the de Kooning scholar Sally Yard has written, “which may become a line, a plane, a shape or letter, and which may be consumed or obliterated by another sweep of paint” (S. Yard, Willem de Kooning: The First Twenty-Six Years in New York, New York, 1986, p. 163).

In Event in a Barn, the continual shifting of perspective prevents the viewer from ever gaining a foothold in the painting, resulting instead in an active composition that invites the eye to trace the contours of the artist’s brush, delving deep into the scene to wander and explore its labyrinthian arrangement of forms. It might stray into the background of the painting’s infinite sense of space, only to snap back to the surface an instant later. This is particularly the case with de Kooning’s use of yellow pigment, which in some cases works in tandem with the black to outline certain forms, while at other points it seems to merely constitute the painting’s background. In every square inch of the painting, however, the clear evidence of de Kooning’s swift and powerful working method is on full display. The paint is dragged, pressed, scraped and pulled. Certain areas reveal a thickly-loaded brush, while others are thinned down and scraped away, leaving “ghosted” remains of previous layers. In some areas, the paint is allowed to pool and drip, and collaged elements further enliven the already complex surface tension. What’s become important now is the painter’s process, and de Kooning’s broad and powerful strokes convey the force and energy of the artist himself. “Sometimes the painter’s internal struggle to create the painting seemed almost as important as the end result,” the art critic Harold Rosenberg wrote, in his seminal 1952 Art News article on Abstract Expressionism. “What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event” (H. Rosenberg, 1952; reprinted in M. Stevens and A. Swan, De Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2004, p. 219).

During these years, de Kooning was the ultimate embodiment of the struggling artist, working in a small, cold-water flat as he labored toward the discovery of his breakthrough style. In 1946, he took a studio at 85 Fourth Avenue, which allowed him the opportunity to work in long, uninterrupted stretches and to be in close proximity to other artists who lived on or near the same street. He developed a close friendship with the artist Franz Kline, and together the two artists made the fortuitous discovery that enamel paint provided a far cheaper alternative to oils, and they purchased five-gallon buckets of both black and white. De Kooning also began working with cardboard and masonite rather than the more expensive canvas, and this development helped foster the technique for which he is now famous. The sturdy support of the board aided in this process. Both of these rather prosaic changes in his tools and materials ultimately kickstarted the artist toward a major breakthrough. As Sally Yard elucidates: “From 1947 onward de Kooning was far more prolific than in previous years." Having embarked in 1946 on the severe limitation of his palette and the use of the highly fluid medium of enamel on paper, she writes, de Kooning pursued “the possibilities of his new methods with extraordinary energy” (S. Yard, op. cit., pp. 161-162).

“Of all movements I like cubism most,” de Kooning has said. “It had that wonderful unsure atmosphere of reflection, a poetic frame where something could be possible, where an artist could practice his intuition” (W. de Kooning, quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swan, op. cit., p. 217). Indeed, as de Kooning experimented with and refined the techniques that would reach their ultimate expression in abstractions like Attic and Excavation, he looked to Picasso for inspiration. He also borrowed readily from Picasso’s portraits of Dora Maar of the 1930s, especially their exuberant palette of yellow, green and pink, not to mention the simplified black outlines that Picasso was fond of using at this time. It is perhaps not surprising that Event in a Barn corresponds to an important exhibit of Picasso’s work at the Kootz Gallery in New York in 1947, which was the first major show of Picasso’s work in the postwar years. Likewise, de Kooning seemed haunted by his friendship with Arshile Gorky, with whom he had suffered a falling out a few years earlier, and many of the curving, biomorphic forms of Event in a Barn recall Gorky’s Garden in Sochi series. Critics have also discovered similarities to Miró and Matisse, and it seems that de Kooning was seeking a way to acknowledge these past European masters whilst staying true to himself. “This emphasis and reliance on yourself, on not looking over your shoulder of others, or painting as if others were looking over your shoulder, became the main theme,” de Kooning’s friend, the painter Jack Tworkov described. “And because there was this break with tradition, there was a real kind of effort to break with Europe, to break with Picasso” (J. Tworkov, quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swan, Ibid., p 219).

Often the titles of de Kooning’s paintings from this early stage are as enigmatic as the forms they contain, with strange and powerful allusions to things hidden away that wait to be discovered. Words and phrases like “Attic,” “Excavation” and even “Barn” evoke visions of the struggling artist who goes about searching for tools or insight in some long forgotten, out-of-the-way place. He seems to indicate that what he seeks will not be got in the usual way, but rather approached through back doors, attic doors, barn doors, or by digging deep into the earth. And it was perhaps only by going through this process of self-discovery and rifling through past masters, that de Kooning ultimately broke free to create a new style that was entirely his own.

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