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Two visits to Italy made by Willem de Kooning in 1959-60 and 1969 made a hitherto under-explored impact on his art. Both prompted intense periods of creativity and somewhat unexpected results in the realms of drawing and sculpture. But the Gallerie dell’Accademia’s Biennale blockbuster, Willem de Kooning and Italy, offers a significant representation not just of those bodies of work, but of his last three decades of activity.

His first Italian stay, in September 1959, was short: a few days in Venice, then a matter of hours in Rome before returning to the US. “Gregory Corso, the American beat poet whom [De Kooning] had met in Venice, toured him around Rome quickly to see some of the sights,” says Gary Garrels, the co-curator of the exhibition. As Garrels suggests, “the time in Rome was obviously powerful”. Four weeks later De Kooning was back; he stayed for four months.

He was constantly reinventing himself, reconsidering, circling back. He never got stymied by what he’d done before

He was then riding a wave of acclaim and success. The Venice exhibition begins with examples of paintings from his show at Sidney Janis gallery in May 1959. Works like Bolton Landing (1957) and Detour (1958) are known as the Parkway Landscapes—their bold forms and slabs and swooshes of colour suggest the expansive vistas De Kooning saw on the road from New York to his second home in Springs, Long Island. They were “a big breakthrough from the work that had preceded them, from 1955-56”, Garrels says.

Freedom to experiment

In that extended Rome stay, De Kooning was lent a studio by Afro Basaldella, an Italian artist who he had known in New York. The studio was small, with little or no natural light, and the work he made was “quite different from the Parkway paintings”, Garrels says: black-and-white drawings. Now known as the Romes, they are far from modest, however. De Kooning worked in ink “and also would put ground pumice in them, which I think is interesting, being in Italy, using that material”, Garrels says. “It was a moment and a place that allowed him freedom to try something new and something different, to experiment.” He would work on both sides of the paper, tear them, fold them, join them together.

De Kooning’s 1975 painting Screams of Children Come from Seagulls (Untitled XX) is from a period in his career that the curator Gary Garrels characterises as an “eruption of grand abstractions”

Crucially, as Garrels says, the Romes “influenced him when he came back to New York to do something different”. Three examples of the post-Italy paintings, known as the Pastoral Landscapes—all of equal size and painted in 1960—is in the Accademia show: A Tree in Naples, VillaBorghese and Door to the River. Two clearly nod to specific Italian places, but Garrels’s co-curator Mario Codognato argues in his catalogue essay for the exhibition that the Rome drawings’ influence can also be found, “where broad brushstrokes create new forms of unexpected truncations, interferences, and superimpositions”. Garrels suggests that the Pastoral paintings’ mood is also distinctive. “They’re more romantic. They’re more lush. They’re more overall. They’re softer.” They are “provoked, inspired maybe” by “being immersed in a place and being in the wonderful gardens and parks of Italy, at a different tempo of life”.

A return to figuration

Garrels explains that De Kooning’s career is often seen as a series of breaks and ruptures and some of the great paintings of female figures from the 1960s, including Woman, Sag Harbor (1964), from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, reflect his return to figuration, but with the boldness and expansiveness of colour in the landscapes that preceded them. But they also set the stage for another rupture: the sculptures he made after his visit to Italy in 1969.

It began with an invitation to the festival in Spoleto in the Perugia province, but the major moment happened in one of De Kooning’s regular visits to Rome, where he by chance encountered the sculptor Herzl Emanuel, who he had known as a young artist in the US. He now ran a bronze foundry in the Trastevere district.

The figurative forms De Kooning fashioned from clay, Garrels says, are “thrilling—they’re magnificent, they’re incredibly powerful”. But they are also “overlooked”, he says, “because they are a sidebar chapter to the overall career, which is basically a career as a painter and draftsman”. But, he argues, “the sculptures allowed him to finish out his interest in the figure that began in the 1960s; the last figurative paintings are in 1972, and then the last sculptures, for sure, are 1974.” They, in turn, lead to the late-1970s “eruption of grand abstractions”, before the 1980s paintings.

Clamdigger (1972); De Kooning discovered sculpture after his

1969 visit to Spoleto

Garrels and Codognato link De Kooning’s final paintings to the Italian Baroque, particularly Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who as Garrels says, is “pervasive” in Rome. “He’s everywhere and magnificently so.” Even though the 1980s paintings do not overtly reference Bernini, Garrels says that with De Kooning “things filter in and they percolate up” and the “swooping, swirling lines and voluptuous volumes” of De Kooning’s final period suggest the “defiance of gravity” of the Berninis in the Borghese, as well as De Kooning’s memorable assertion: “If I ever saw Minimalism, there it was.”

The defiantly nonlinear progression through the last half of De Kooning’s career, evident in the Venice show, proves in general “why the work remains so open for over 60 years”, Garrels says. “He was constantly reinventing himself, reconsidering, circling back. He never got stymied by what he had done before.” And his trips to Italy were vital to that constant ebb and flow.

Willem de Kooning and Italy, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Campo della Carità 1050, 17 April-15 September

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