Feature

Exhibit of the week: De Kooning: A Retrospective

MoMA's retrospective of De Kooning includes 200 paintings, drawings, and sculptures.

Museum of Modern Art, New York Through Jan. 9

The great myth about the painter Willem de Kooning is that he arrived like a comet in the 1940s and tailed off soon after, said Jerry Saltz in New York. During the few short years that the Dutch-born New Yorker was truly in vogue with contemporary critics, he and Jackson Pollack were the twin pillars of American abstract expressionism. Without doubt, de Kooning’s “tightly constructed” Excavation, from 1950, remains a masterpiece: For more than a decade, he had been laboring “to take apart and flatten cubism” for his own purposes, and with that one canvas he finally achieved a “total visual-spatial war” that satisfied all observers. But after you’ve arrived at that moment, less than halfway through MoMA’s mammoth retrospective, take a deep breath. Among other things, this stunning show “proves that de Kooning started great and only got better.”

The very next gallery indicates why, said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. Woman I, which de Kooning finished in 1952, may be “the most controversial painting ever made in America.” Its gargoyle-like female nude was “deplored as reactionary” by proponents of abstraction and “subsequently lambasted as vilely macho by feminists.” But “look at it closely: It thrills in detail” because it wars with itself in every square inch. It tells us now that de Kooning’s most important traits were his endless rebellion against artistic stasis and his drive to make every canvas “a storm of emergencies” and their resolutions. His 1950s nudes are at once backward-looking and thoroughly modern, sensuous and hilarious. Across several more distinct periods, this “greatest of American painters” made “a mad science out of beauty.” Among 20th-century artists, only Picasso and Matisse rank higher.

Until now, MoMA “has never quite known what to do” with him, said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. But this “exhaustively comprehensive and predictably awe-inspiring” exhibition makes up for decades of relative neglect. The works that moved me most among the 200 paintings, drawings, and sculptures assembled here were the late canvases, from a period that has often been written off because by 1980 de Kooning was showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. “I admire a lot of de Kooning; I love these last pictures.” A trio of primary colors—red, yellow, and blue—appear in various ribbons atop pure white fields. Dull they’re not. “The basic energy-generating dynamic of de Kooning’s art operates in nearly every single thing he did.”

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