In 1952, the Dutch-American artist Willem de Kooning found himself in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion, Pennsylvania. Taking a break from his studio in New York, where he was at work on his experimental Woman series, the abstract expressionist had come to see the famed collection of chemist-turned-connoisseur Albert C. Barnes. Among the many meticulously arranged works by masters like El Greco, Renoir, Matisse, Cézanne, and Picasso, one artist’s quietly kinetic paintings—portraits, landscapes, and still lives—seemed to “glow from within,” striking de Kooning with “a special kind of light.”
The works, de Kooning learned, had been painted by another expatriate. His name was Chaïm Soutine, a Russian Jew who left a shtetl near Minsk and emigrated to Paris in the 1910s, where he lived until his early death in 1943. Likening him to a “juicier,” more electric Van Gogh, Barnes was convinced that Soutine’s art was revolutionary; he bought scores of his paintings in the 1920s, helping launch the artist’s career in the United States. De Kooning evidently agreed with Barnes’s assessment: speaking during a 1977 interview in terms at once erotic and religious, de Kooning cited Soutine as one of his chief influences, praising the painter’s “fleshiness” and suggesting that his works were capable of enacting “a kind of transfiguration.”
Now the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia has brought the two artists—whose lives and careers partially overlapped, but who never actually met—together for a set of “conversations in paint.” The show is small, featuring just forty-two paintings and spread over five galleries. (Co-organized with the Musée de l’Orsay and the Musée de l’Orangerie, it will travel to Paris in August.) But it also feels like the perfect size for a post-pandemic exhibit. Arranged with a light yet incisive curatorial hand by Simonetta Fraquelli and Claire Bernardi, Soutine/de Kooning largely dispenses with wall labels and critical analysis, and instead rewards close examination of the paintings themselves. What emerges, more than theory about the tensions between figuration and abstraction, or the vicissitudes of art history, are the tactile, visceral quality of Soutine’s and de Kooning’s canvases, where the former’s dabs and globs complement the latter’s smears and scrapes. Staring at them side-by-side—the show opens subtly, with just a single pair of paintings—unlocks a seemingly infinite set of affinities, divergences, and connections.