With his signature flare for linear eloquence and automatic gesture, Willem de Kooning masterfully weaves a composition of Surrealist dislocation and juxtaposition of disparate elements to create one of his most important works from the 1940s, Event in a Barn. Dating to 1947, the present work is a vigorous and vibrant painting that powerfully conveys the artist's indebtedness to Cubism while also firmly establishing him as a leading painter of gestural abstractions. The late 1940s was a culmination of creative ferment in post-war New York and de Kooning was at the center of an artistic community that changed the course of modern art. Painted just one year before his first solo show in New York at Egan Gallery, Event in a Barn marks a turning point in the artist's career that announces his arrival at a successful and mature individual style that both merges avant-garde influences and his innate gifts as a painter and draftsman.
Together with Jackson Pollock's "drip" paintings, de Kooning's 1940s paintings catapulted the burgeoning school of Abstract Expressionism to the forefront of the art world. In every decade of his long and illustrious career, de Kooning kept a firm grip on his medium as his muse. As in Event in a Barn, his slippery forms oscillate between figuration and abstraction, conservative and radical, composed and agitated, with as much inventiveness as his choice of brilliant color palette and lush range of brushwork. His independent spirit infused his paintings with a heroic quality redolent of individualism rather than conformism. He was at heart a pluralist who reveled in the multi-dimensional and multi-thematic in all his works. De Kooning's confidence in both gesture and figuration serves as a strong foundation for the terse push-pull relationship of figurative realism versus total abstraction. With contemporaries like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko working in complete abstraction in the 1940s and 1950s, de Kooning instead strove to bridge past influences, mainly Cubism, into what was the current abstract aesthetic of the time. In Event in a Barn the viewer is presented with the emotive content and softer organic forms of Surrealism, yet here de Kooning combines them with an uneasy tension within the flattened space and geometric constructs of Cubism.
The date of the present work, 1947, is concurrent with the first major post-war showing of Picasso's paintings in New York at the Kootz gallery. Direct comparisons may be drawn between Event in a Barn and Picasso's mid 1940's drawings and paintings. The artists share a preference for an all-over composition of abstracted forms. De Kooning was reluctant to be affiliated solely with Abstraction and to define Abstract painting as a school; however, he insisted on his respect for Cubism, "of all movements I like Cubism most. It had that wonderful unsure atmosphere of reflection – a poetic frame where something could be possible, where an artist could practice intuition. It didn't want to get rid of what went before. Instead it added something to it. The parts I can appreciate in other movements came out of Cubism." (De Kooning in The Museum of Modern Art Bulletin, 18, no. 3, Spring 1951, p. 7).
Event in a Barn was created in the same year as de Kooning's important black and white abstractions and shares with these works the artist's interest in highlighting the surface of the painting with an edge-to-edge dance of line and design, and the joy of painterly incident. In these works the impression of an uninhibited composition is in fact the result of an element of random or intuitive construction in the artist's formal technique and process. These abstractions are packed with shapes metamorphosed from drawings (often times of women) that de Kooning would then cut apart, transpose and intermingle on the canvas in his studio, until they were abstracted, leaving only hints of their original likenesses. De Kooning's sense of line was the soul of his artistic talent and aesthetic sensibilities. Event in a Barn is layered with activity, bold black enamel lines, and colorful areas of striking pink and a yellow-hued green. This palette was the counterpoint to his black and white abstractions and was deployed by de Kooning most famously in his first important series of figurative works up to that time – the Seated Women of the 1940s. Pink Lady of 1944 is a masterpiece of figurative abstraction as de Kooning's cursive line is overwhelmed by color in the elongations and distortions of his post-Ingres composition. In both Event in a Barn and Pink Lady, one can observe other similar characteristics of de Kooning's pictorial invention in this fertile period. The saturated color infuses each painting with an animated yet compressed sense of spatial depth punctuated by the rectangular window-like forms. Akin to the "push-pull" shapes that would appear in Hans Hofmann's work, this spatial construct was de Kooning's Cubist device for implied dimension, while also anchoring the composition to a recognizable motif of daily life.
The critic Renée Arb noted in a review of de Kooning's late 1940's paintings, "there is a constant tension as space envelops and then releases these ambiguous forms. 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 medium." (Renée Arb, "Spotlight on de Kooning," Art News, 47 April 1948). While de Kooning clearly sought to break beyond the boundaries of painterly conventions with as much commitment as his fellow artists, he was singular in his confidence that a connection to figuration need not be wholly abandoned. The title, Event in a Barn, joins ranks with other titles of the 1940s that evoke a sense of locality and narration, setting de Kooning apart from other Modernist and Abstract Expressionist painters who preferred unspecific titles. De Kooning's titles range from the general (Attic and Dark Pond) to the particular (Zurich) with Event in a Barn extending further into a narrative or literary realm than all the others. De Kooning developed his shapes from objects in the real world – they are familiar, yet within the context of abstraction they become ambiguous and non-objective – capitalizing on the world of the viewer's imagination.
Oil, enamel and paper collage on board
Willem De Kooning
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 and Rothko, February - April 1967, cat. 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, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, Picasso and American Art, September 2006 - September 2007, pl. 116, p. 218, illustrated in color
24 3/4 x 33 in. 62.9 x 83.8 cm.
Exh. Cat., New York, Allan Stone Gallery, Willem de Kooning: Slipping Glimpses 1920s to 1960s, 2006, p. 7, illustrated in color (installation photograph from the 1994 - 1995 Allan Stone Gallery exhibition)
E.V. Thaw & Co., Inc., New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1965