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.
Because de Kooning used representation to experiment, his women are never as great as the nonwomen that followed. In his discussion with Elderfield, MoMA director Glenn Lowry was proud to point out that the 1950-53 women were not only the center of de Kooning’s career but the “topographical” center of the retrospective. (And they are masterfully displayed on the center wall of the center room.) Many otherwise-perceptive art historians mistakenly consider these paintings the greatest, or at least most important, of de Kooning’s career. (MoMA chose its own piece from the series, Woman I, for the catalogue cover.) But these works have never recovered from the notoriety of the 1953 Sidney Janis Gallery show, which Harold Rosenberg (inventor of the phrase “action painting”) used to anchor his fight against the preeminent hostile critic, Clement Greenberg.
When de Kooning had his first solo show at the Egan Gallery in 1948, Greenberg was exhaustively enthusiastic about the great black-and-white works such as Black Friday and Painting. (The latter, de Kooning’s first museum acquisition, was purchased by MoMA in 1948.) Greenberg called de Kooning “an outright ‘abstract’ painter.” But de Kooning’s return to women horrified him. To paint the figure, Greenberg thought, was to betray modern art. Rosenberg co-opted the woman paintings as a means of setting himself apart from Greenberg and became de Kooning’s most voluble supporter among the leading critics. (Greenberg, thinking that Jackson Pollock had run his course, entrenched with
The woman paintings of 1950-53 were, by virtue of being at the center of the debate on what modern art ought to be, elevated to the high status they still enjoy but do not quite deserve. Greenberg was right that, taking each painting as a whole, they aren’t as good as the earlier abstractions. He failed to notice, however, that certain abstract passages in the new woman paintings were more focused, brilliant in brushwork, and explosive in color than anything de Kooning had produced before. De Kooning’s new manner of abstraction took over the whole canvas. The female form (fainter and fainter as de Kooning progressed) was buried and shattered, just as it had been with the women of 1948 and those in his first series from the early ’40s. Each return to the figure—to women—was a new beginning, and de Kooning developed through the gradual destruction and sublimation of the figure. When he had taken an idea as far as it would go, the figure was gone. It was replaced by pure energy.
The great abstractions of the mid-1950s contain more energy—hurricane-force intensity—per square inch than any other paintings in the show. No de Koonings are greater than Interchange, Police Gazette, or Gotham News (all 1955) with their enriched-uranium levels of energy density—except, perhaps, the paintings on the opposite wall, the grand-gesture paintings, what Art News’s Thomas Hess called “the full arm sweep.” These works—among them Park Rosenberg and Bolton Landing (both 1957) and Suburb in Havana (1958)—are what you’d get if you blew up two square inches of a 1953 woman painting to big-canvas size. Controlled chaos and overall frenzy is replaced by the majesty and freedom of the big brush. De Kooning simplified his palette—warm yellow, cream, ultramarine, red earth—and the subdued colors of these paintings gave way, after de Kooning visited Rome at the turn of the decade, to the luminous Door to the River (1960) and Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point (1963). Brown is replaced by creamy, peach pink. It has the effect of bringing Suburb in Havana into bright daylight and taking an overexposed photograph.
This show’s most magnificent moment comes as one turns to the left, away from Door to the River, to face the far wall. There are five large canvases, from left to right: Untitled XI (1975), ...Whose Name Was Writ in Water (1975), Untitled I (1977), Screams of Children Come from Seagulls (1975), and Untitled (1977). I had never considered de Kooning’s ’70s abstractions his greatest, but the effect created by these five paintings together is without parallel. The color and form and flow is overwhelmingly, surpassingly lovely. And to get from the “full arm sweep” to these utterly different pieces, de Kooning once again painted women. MoMA gives the “Clam Diggers” women of the 1960s and their subsequent abstractification a whole room, which is too much. These paintings are the weakest, lacking the ferocity of the earlier women; and despite the occasional success in color, the overall effect is flimsy vulgarity.
The end of de Kooning’s career has always given curators trouble, but Elderfield handles it superbly. In the mid-eighties (1984 was a tipping point), symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease became acute. De Kooning’s paintings began to empty out—ribbons of color cut across large swaths of smooth white. He painted with increasing difficulty and with the aid of studio assistants. In 1989 he was ruled mentally incompetent; in 1990 he stopped painting, although he lived until 1997. Elderfield cuts off the retrospective at 1987, the last year de Kooning’s work could be considered fully realized. The final paintings are spare, graceful, serenely beautiful.
Daniel Gelernter, an artist and art dealer in New York, represents his and his father’s work at gelernterstudio.com.