Painterly Abstraction, 1949–1969: Selections from the Guggenheim Collections
June 14, 2011 – January 8, 2012
Themes | Willem de Kooning, Villa Borghese, 1960
"Just coming around roads, some place, and having the sensation of a piece of it, a piece of nature, like a fence, something on the road. And I really get very elated by again looking, by again seeing that the sky is blue, that the grass is green."1
Following the end of World War II, art making changed in Europe and beyond. In the United States—especially New York, the new center for avant-garde art worldwide—artists moved toward a gesture-based, expressive style known as Abstract Expressionism. These artists were interested in process and materials as well as tapping into their own unconscious and emotional states of mind.
While most Abstract Expressionists eventually shunned references to the real world in favor of internal expression, Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) returned to the external world for inspiration in his abstract paintings. De Kooning was criticized by his peers for this move back to representation, which was considered regressive. From 1950 to 1955, he completed his famous Women series in which he integrated the human form with aggressive paint application, bold colors, and experimentation. Then, in the latter half of the 1950s, he turned to landscape, first, the urban surroundings of his studio in downtown Manhattan and later, a more pastoral setting outside New York and near the Atlantic Ocean.
Villa Borghese (1960) was inspired by a landscape in Rome, where De Kooning spent approximately five months during 1959 and 1960. The painting's title alludes to a famous public park, which includes a lake and several fountains. The work's Mediterranean color palette suggests the sun, sky, water, and grass that De Kooning may have remembered from his trip. The painting was not made on-site but after the artist had returned to New York, making it more of a subjective translation of his memories than a depiction of any particular view.2
1 "Willem de Kooning. A Tree in Naples. 1960," Museum of Modern Art, The Collection, accessed May 26, 2011.
2 "Villa Borghese," Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, The Collection: Our Own Collection, accessed May 26, 2011.
- Look together at De Kooning's Villa Borghese. Ask students what they notice about it. Be sure to discuss the brushstrokes, colors, and size. (To make clear its size, point out the dimensions listed in the caption and compare them to an object in the classroom.)
- What associations do the colors evoke for your students? Ask them to give the colors names as if they worked for a paint company (such as canary yellow). What sounds, smells, or tastes do they conjure?
- Ask students to look carefully at the brushstrokes. How would they describe them? What mood do they evoke? How do students think De Kooning had to move to create this painting?
- Tell students the painting's title and that it was inspired by a large public park that the artist had visited in Rome. The park features fountains, a man-made lake, wide shady lanes, foliage, temples, statues, and museums. What aspects of the park, if any, can they see echoed in the painting?
- Look together at pictures of Villa Borghese and ask students to continue these comparisons.
- De Kooning painted this work after he returned to his home in New York. Ask students what they think the difference is between painting a subject while it is in view versus painting based on memory. How might the work have been different if it were painted on-site?
- De Kooning was often criticized for moving from abstract works that expressed internal, psychological states to those inspired by the world around him. Ask students to discuss the advantages or disadvantages of each approach.
- For this activity, students will capture their memories of a place in an abstract painting.
- First, ask students to think about a place that is special to them. It can be a place they have visited on vacation or a familiar part of the community.
- Next, ask them to write down the words they associate with that place. You might prompt them further by asking for "mood words," or adjectives, such as calm or chaotic; "object words," or nouns, such as beach or pine trees; and "color words," such as misty gray.
- Then give students red, yellow, blue, black, and white paint; a selection of paintbrushes (some small, some large); a paint palette; and a container of water and ask them to create a palette of at least five colors that they think captures the place they visited. Discuss their colors before moving on to the painting. What do these colors evoke for them and for their classmates? Another way to do this is to get a multitude of paint chips from a paint store and have them select 5-6 colors that they associate with that place and lay them out or glue them to a white piece of paper.
- Finally, distribute paper or small canvases and encourage students to use brushstrokes inspired by their mood words and their color palette to express their relationship to the place. Encourage them to stick to abstraction but allow them to represent objects if they feel drawn to that approach.
- Look together at the final works and ask the students to discuss their choices. Ask them to notice brushstroke and color choices. What moods do these paintings convey? How do they evoke a relationship to specific places?
Memory versus Observation
- For this activity, students will contrast the process of capturing a place by memory with capturing it by observation. Villa Borghese was painted after De Kooning returned to New York from Rome, rather than while the park was in view. Tell students that they will experiment with the differences between portraying a place while it is in view with representing it from memory.
- First, ask the class to recall a place they have been to in the past. It could be a site they visited on holiday or one in their city or town. Ask students to write a paragraph or two about that place based on their memories, including sounds, smells, tastes, colors, mood, and temperature.
- Next, bring the class to a part of the school such as the cafeteria or playground or to a nearby park, and ask them to write a paragraph or two of their observations about this location. What do they notice, including sounds, smells, tastes, colors, mood, and temperature?
- Encourage students to compare their memory- and observation-based writings and then share their findings with a partner. How are they different or similar? Which do they prefer and why?