At once enigmatic, dynamic, and thoughtful, this early canvas by Willem de Kooning emerges as a captivating painting suggested to have most likely been included in the artist’s first-ever solo exhibition at the Charles Egan Gallery in 1948. While warm, organic hues dominate the canvas with their quiet virtuosity, subtle hints of bold color—red, green, orange—are dappled throughout the painting. The surface is energetically rendered with the artist’s assertive gestures, effectively leaving behind traces of the artist’s hand. The canvas’s forms are fraught with temptation to categorize and define, yet their ambiguity and refusal to allude to any obvious representation is precisely that which makes this painting so enticing. With each glance, the surface never fails to reveal something new—whether about the painting itself, the artist, or even the viewer.
Days before his forty-fourth birthday, de Kooning finally staged his first solo exhibition in 1948. Almost two years prior, in September 1946, the dealer Charles Egan approached the artist about presenting an exhibition at his gallery in April 1948, thereby leaving de Kooning ample time to complete his most mature body of work to date. When the exhibition finally opened, it was met with resounding critical acclaim. Clement Greenberg gushed about the show: “Decidedly, the past year has been a remarkably good one for American art. Now, as if suddenly, we are introduced by Willem de Kooning’s first show, at the Egan Gallery, to one of the four or five most important painters in the country, and find it hard to believe that work of such distinction should come to our notice without having given preliminary signs of itself long before. The fact is that de Kooning has been painting almost all his life, but only recently to his own satisfaction. He has saved one the trouble of repeating “promising.” Having chosen at last, in his early forties, to show his work, he comes before us in his maturity, in possession of himself, with his means under control, and with enough knowledge of himself and of painting in general to exclude all irrelevancies” (C. Greenberg, “Review of an Exhibition of Willem de Kooning,” The Nation, April 21, 1948).
Years later, Egan could only recall seven of the ten featured in this exhibition but John Elderfield, former Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, surmises Brown and White’s likely inclusion based on its visual similarities. Several other iconic paintings appeared alongside the present work in this exhibition, including Light in August (Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art), Valentine (Museum of Modern Art, New York), Noon (Philadelphia Museum of Art), Zurich (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.), and Black Friday (Princeton University Art Museum). Still, not only does this exhibition distinguish itself as de Kooning’s first one man show, but it emerges as the one which featured some of his most artistically innovative work. Here, positive and negative space are constantly interchanged to obfuscate presuppositions of light and shadow, thereby achieving a disorienting flatness. In Brown and White, the darker caramel hues adopt a sense of tangibility while the stark white somehow fills the interstitial space. The surface of the painting is de Kooning’s greatest preoccupation in Brown and White as the colors and forms augment the interactions of surface and depth. “A draftsman of the highest order,” Greenberg would agree, “de Kooning’s insistence on a smooth, thin surface is a concomitant of his desire for purity, for an art that makes demands only on the optical imagination” (ibid.).
Following the critical success of this exhibition, de Kooning presented Brown and White to his dentist, Dr. Jack Greenbaum, who was then asked to loan Brown and White for the 1954 Biennale di Venezia by the Museum of Modern Art, New York who were responsible for organizing the country’s participation. Along with fellow painter Ben Shahn, de Kooning was picked to represent the United States of America in the internationally acclaimed exhibition. His paintings embodied what was seen in America as the most advanced art movement, emblematic of the Abstract Expressionist, postwar sensibility.
Finally, when Brown and White entered the Collection of renowned architect I.M. Pei, it took on an entirely new, architectural sensibility. Pei was a thoughtful and deliberate art collector, only acquiring meaningful artworks – whether those by his friends or merely those he admired. Since the 1960s, after I.M and Eileen Pei had moved into their apartment at 30 Beekman Place, they had started a family ritual of frequenting Upper East Side galleries to admire Abstract Expressionist art. It was around then that Pei acquired Brown and White. Indeed, Pei and de Kooning may have crossed paths; in 1978 when the new East Building of the National Gallery, designed by Pei, held its inaugural exhibition “American Art at Mid-Century: The Subjects of the Artists” that focused on de Kooning and his contemporaries. To celebrate the occasion, Paul and Bunny Mellon held an extravagant dinner where both were in attendance. Years later, in 1989, Pei and de Kooning both received the first Praemium Imperiale Award which honored their lifetime achievements in architecture and art respectively. Though de Kooning sent representatives on his behalf, as he had largely retired from public life by this time, this prestigious award recognized the two as some of the most important figures of the 20th century. Nonetheless, Brown and White undoubtedly held great importance for Pei, “The essence of things – that’s what lasts” he said. “Otherwise, the work is transitory” (I.M. Pei, quoted in “The Architect,” Christie’s Magazine, November 2013, p. 50).
Brown and White remains an elegant example of de Kooning reaching his maturity early – his elegant use of form in conjunction with his superb draftsmanship maintain its brilliant abstraction. It is perhaps these qualities that enabled its exceptional history as an art object. From perhaps being included in the artist’s first solo exhibition, to representing the United States at the Venice Biennale, then to coming into the art collection of prestigious architect, I.M. Pei, Brown and White is certainly an important part to de Kooning’s oeuvre. Of the very first exhibition, Renee Arb writes for ArtNews, “[de Kooning’s] abstractions with their fierce energy are the results of months of sketching and alteration, and they reveal a new, self-contained personality. For here is virtuosity disguised by voluptuousness—the process of painting becomes the end…. Indeed, his subject seems to be the crucial intensity of the creative process itself, which de Kooning has translated into a new and purely pictorial idiom” (R. Arb, “Spotlight on de Kooning,” ArtNews (April 1948), p. 33).