One of the joys of covering a Willem de Kooning exhibition, such as the one at the Bridgestone Museum of Art, is catching up with the jargon that surrounds his work. As he was a leading light of New York’s postwar abstract expressionist movement, who later veered in the direction of figurative art, de Kooning’s paintings are typified by a wilful rejection of modulated technique, which can evoke comparisons to kindergarten art. It is then amusing to read something like this, from the exhibition catalog:

“His approach does not differ in any way from that of the Old Masters who were dealing with a more venerable idea of beauty. He was concerned with depicting aesthetic objects of interest to his own age with new formal principles, a basic attitude that he shared with the great artists of the past.”

This is rather like saying that a pomegranate and a moon rock are similar because they both exist in the same cosmos. It is even funnier when you see the artwork that this passage actually refers to, namely “Study for Marilyn Monroe” (1951), which consists of cartoonish lines sketched on pieces of tracing paper, roughly pasted onto a larger sheet of paper, and then partially colored with blurred smudges of pastel.

But while it is easy to mock de Kooning’s almost formless forms, there is an important difference from kids’ art — it is not nearly so effortless. De Kooning spent an undue amount of time wrestling with some of his canvases to produce works that look like they were splashed off in a thoughtless moment.

Underneath the purposefully decomposed compositions, unmediated colors, and savage brushstrokes, there is a sense of struggle. In short, they are tortured, brutalized images, raw and even ugly but somehow symbolic of the middle of the 20th century.

In what is de Kooning’s first ever museum show in Japan, the Bridgestone presents around 34 oils, charcoals, pastels and pencils, and even a sculpture. The exhibition focuses on the artist’s paintings of women, although this may not be immediately obvious, as the works exist in the no-man’s-land between abstract and figurative, something that gives them an unsettling energy.

Along with Jackson Pollock and other New York artists of the early Cold War period, de Kooning’s paintings are sometimes represented as totems of American freedom, of an anything- goes explosion of the individual, to contrast with the dull conformity of Communism. But in these garish works, in which female protuberances, lips and eyes are smeared and gouged across the canvas, it is hard not to see an undercurrent of aggression — sexual or otherwise — against the artist’s subject matter.

“Willem de Kooning From the John and Kimiko Powers Collection” at the Bridgestone Museum of Art runs till Jan. 12; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥800. Closed Mon. www.bridgestone-museum.gr.jp

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