Let’s start with a visualization exercise. Think about this artwork by Willem de Kooning (below). What do you see? My guess is an abstracted woman, painted in quick gestures with vivid colors. Let’s try again. Now, think about Gustav Klimt (an example of his work is below). I’m guessing you see beautiful figures, arranged flatly and stylized in Klimt’s signature mosaic/symbolist fashion. So why do you see these specific images? Well, any Google Image search will tell you that basically everyone sees the same visions when they think of these two celebrated artists. But the question persists – why do fairly narrow stylistic conventions define these artists so overwhelmingly?


Willem de Kooning | Woman V | 1952-53 |Oil on canvas

National Gallery of Australia

This past week, I had the pleasure of seeing the de Kooning retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. This massive exhibition is the first by a major museum to look at the full scope of the artist’s career. In art school I had two professors that routinely coined my work to de Koonings abstract expressionist paintings, I had no strong feelings about de Kooning either way–I respect his importance in the development of Abstract Expressionism, but aesthetically his work didn’t move me – but as a new gallery director I knew it would be extremely advantageous of me to see this retrospective at the MoMA. Covering all 93 years of the artist’s life, MoMA divided his career into nine sections. To my surprise, only about ten years contained artwork that I would describe as instantly recognizable “de Koonings.” Spread into three sections, this is where you could find the Women series and other hallmarks.


Willem de Kooning | Clam Digger | 1972 |

Bronze | 59 1/2 x 29 5/8 x 23 3/4 in. |

Private Collection

I was surprised on three levels. First, virtually all of the iconic work by de Kooning came from one decade. Second, this relatively short period in the artist’s long career took up one third of the gallery space. Finally, I was surprised at how different the preceding and following sections were. I would not have been able to identify over half of the exhibition as work by this Abstract Expressionist, and while it was an extremely disorienting experience, it was also a very informative one.

Did you know that de Kooning was also a sculptor? A printmaker? I didn’t, before seeing the show. Highlighted in a later section entitled “New Directions,” these alternative media demonstrated the artist’s prowess in three dimensions and non-unique work. I loved his ragged bronze figures, and, put within the context of the exhibition, they are clearly connected to his earlier Woman series.  However, if I saw one in a museum or sculpture garden I would never have been able to identify it as a de Kooning.


Willem de Kooning | Untitled V | 1982 |

Oil on canvas | 6′ 8 x 70” in. |

The Willem de Kooning Foundation /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The same holds true for his later paintings, which I thought were incredibly powerful, yet understated. They are described as “smooth” and “bright,” without the “heavy painterliness” for which de Kooning is best known. These unexpected revelations were my favorite part of the exhibition, and really made me appreciate his more “typical” work as a synthesis of his various styles in the course of a long career.

So, back to the gap. It is common museum practice (especially in universal survey museums, such as MoMA) to only put on view one or a few “representative” works of art by an artist. If given the choice, I am sure that any museum around the world would select a signature de Kooning Woman to display. Given the option to display more, they would most likely stay within the time period and choose other figurative works that compare and contrast to the famous depiction of a woman.

But what about the rest of the artist’s oeuvre? What about educating museum visitors on the scope of his career? Or is that what retrospectives are for – to show how the artist reached their pinnacle, and where they went after? So, given that, is it best to simply show visitors what they expect to see on a daily basis? Or shock them with unknown work by well-known figures? If you show work less know by an artist without the context of the signature pieces does it hold the same value? What has more educational merit?


Gustav Klimt | Idyll | 1884 |

 Oil on canvas | 19.5 x 29 in. |

Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien, Vienna

Let’s return to Gustav Klimt. Klimt’s early work is a wonderful example of why I think it is important to examine the work of an artist as a whole. I will never forget the day in an art history class when a slide of Bougereau-esque fresco was projected onto the wall, and the professor told us that it was by Gustav Klimt (above). That moment of shock, of disbelief, has affected how I think about art, especially when I see a “masterpiece” that is a highlight of an artist’s career. It makes me really think about what came before and what came after, and how they are all connected.

Klimt, as you might have guessed by now, was classically trained and was in fact employed as an architectural artist before he became a founding member of the Vienna Secession and developed his symbolist style that garnered him international fame (although it was widely ridiculed at the time). There is a world of difference between his Academic commissions and glittering, mosaic-like paintings – but that gap is illuminated when you look at the transition from one style to the other.


Gustav Klimt | Adele Bloch-Bauer’s Portrait | 1907 |

Oil and golden and silver foil on canvas | 54.3 x 54.3 in. |

Neue Galerie, New York

So what is the solution – how do we close the gap? Is it best to have curators and scholars make an informed selection when putting works on view in museums? That way, visitors will be able to see and experience works that are in the same vein as the masterpieces that made the artist famous, a convention which clearly has merit. On the other hand, is it more educational to show the visitor works that inform these masterpieces–works that demonstrate how the artist arrived at their signature style?

I definitely do not have the answers to these questions, but I would love to know what you all think. Is this gap an inevitable part of the museum experience, since it would be impossible to represent every artist’s full trajectory? In fact, is it a desirable disconnect, since perhaps you don’t want to see the works that have been forgotten by history? Or do you want more context and opportunities to see atypical work, even if it means taking the “masterpieces” off view?