Willem de Kooning (1904—97) is routinely portrayed as an “artist’s artist,” perhaps the paramount painter among a generation of geniuses. By simply looking at his most iconic “Woman” series, I’ve never fully understood why. But a pass through MoMA’s comprehensive exhibition, De Kooning: A Retrospective, curated by John Elderfield and on view through January 9, pretty much elucidates why he’s considered so great.
De Kooning reinvented his painting style many times along the way, but the amazing thing is, if he had stopped evolving prior to his golden “Woman” period (basically beginning in the late 1940s through the early 1950s), he might still be considered atop his generation. One of the most striking canvases at MoMA is Excavation (1950), with its jigsaw puzzle composition that hovers between pure abstraction and representation; the palette, dominantly cream colored but with shots of color indicating a volatile inner life; and the sheer technical prowess of the painting, all combining into a giant visual symphony that gives Pollock’s great One a run for its money. A preceding series of primarily black compositions with white lines shows the value of such an exercise; each line is forced to have true meaning in the overall context, like a solo vocal line.
The “Woman” series seems to best encapsulate the sum total of his career, however, for some of the reasons above, but also during a time when it was nearly mandatory (and valid) to go totally abstract, he continued to pursue the very unfashionable concept of female as muse. Sure, his seemingly monstrous renditions saddled him with questionable accusations of misogyny, but that only seemed to add to the mystique of idols crashing to the ground. He pushed painting’s limits as far as he could within very strict content and technical boundaries. He moved on to do some bold, broad-brushed abstractions and titled them quotidianly (eg, Merritt Parkway), before doing some charming figurative compositions such as Clam Diggers, two figures shimmering as if seen through rising heat from the hot sand.
Even his critically questioned later work, done from the 80s on, and during deteriorating mental health, seems to find peace within the context of his entire career. Had these been done by another hand, they wouldn’t have had to suffer comparisons to his prime period. But their bright primary colors and cool fields of ice white bring some peace and resolution to his bristling style, and closure to a brilliant career, for the viewer too.