A few months ago, at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, I noticed that all the greatest de Koonings were missing. They have since resurfaced, along with most of Willem de Kooning’s greatest work, at the Museum of Modern Art here in Manhattan. The Hirshhorn and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are the two largest lenders (nine works each) to MoMA’s exhibition of nearly 200 pieces from 100
This is the first major de Kooning retrospective since the artist’s death in 1997, the first big show to span de Kooning’s entire career, the first time since MoMA’s 2004 redesign that a whole floor has been turned over to a single artist, and the first exhibition ever to use the full gallery space of MoMA’s sixth floor: 17,000 square feet. The show will also probably be the museum event of the decade, and makes dazzlingly clear that Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) is art history’s greatest abstract painter.
The retrospective was six years in the making, from the first conversation between de Kooning’s daughter and heir, Lisa, and MoMA’s chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture, John Elderfield. Elderfield traveled the country and world securing his choices for a definitive view of de Kooning and was denied only two works. One was an early abstraction, too fragile to travel; the other was Woman IV, which the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City has, unfortunately, made the only gap in de Kooning’s famous six-painting series of 1950-53.
The first gallery covers 30 years of early development, from a 1916 academic still life (de Kooning at 12) to the iconic Pink Angels of 1945. The first works following de Kooning’s 1926 stowaway passage from Holland to Manhattan are strongly Matissian in composition and color; still lifes from 1927 and 1929 are the first beautiful paintings in the show. De Kooning used house paints, as he would continue to do for much of his career. (His paint had to be cheap enough that he’d never worry about scraping it off a canvas and throwing
De Kooning made his first abstractions when he went to work for the WPA as a mural artist in 1935. He’d met the influential Armenian painter Arshile Gorky in 1932. (A great Gorky-period painting, Two Men Standing  is a notable omission from the show.) De Kooning and Gorky were close friends for a decade until Gorky became famous. Thereafter he abandoned de Kooning; but Gorky’s influence is still visible in two remarkable pencil drawings on display: Self Portrait with Imaginary Brother (1938) and Portrait of Elaine (1940).
The Second World War began, the friendship with Gorky collapsed, de Kooning met his future wife, Elaine Fried, and his first great style emerged. It began with a series of woman paintings—among them Seated Woman (1940), Pink Lady (1944), and Queen of Hearts (1943-46). These increasingly ferocious and fractured ladies are de Kooning’s earliest mature pieces, both in color and draftsmanship. They pioneer the technique he used in his first great abstractions. Throughout his career, de Kooning’s women are the cutting edge of his next big development. John Elderfield said at MoMA’s press preview that it was wrong to think of de Kooning as alternating between representational and abstract painting; in fact, he did both simultaneously. This is true, but misleading: de Kooning’s abstractions are always a year or two behind his women. Thus Pink Lady (1944) led to Pink Angels (1945), and Woman (1948)—the next big shift—led to the epochal Excavation (1950). The women of 1950-53 led to Gotham News, Interchange, and Easter Monday in the mid-fifties and, ultimately, to the grand gesture of Suburb in Havana and Door to the River at decade’s end. The watery handling of paint that first appears in the “Clam Diggers” women of the 1960s led to ...Whose Name Was Writ in Water (1975) and the other abstract masterpieces of the ’70s.