A Centennial Show Celebrates Early and Late de Kooning


Gagosian’s centennial celebration of Willem de Kooning begins with his hard-nosed breakthroughs into abstraction and ends by unveiling mysterious glories from his studio in the Springs. De Kooning’s Black paintings stripped the form to essentials: black and white paint poured and brushed with the immediacy of charcoal sketches. He worked wet into wet, using the differing viscosities of cheap oils and enamels to contour light amid dark expanses of space. Unknown and poor, but unyieldingly determined, at 44 he painted Black Friday (1948), its hints of tarry rooftops and alleyways far from the broad, watery sky of his native Holland. “It’s not so much I’m an American,” this immigrant once said. “I’m a New Yorker.” A few years later came the Women, Technicolor cone- and rod-burners with a vengeance. But by 1971, the “melodrama of vulgarity” de Kooning himself ascribed to his art came to the fore in such works as Woman in a Garden; successful and living on Long Island, his prodigious powers were, like this turgid portrait, getting flabby.

More than a decade later, still physically powerful but his mind ebbing, de Kooning had one of America’s greatest second acts. Two years before his 1997 death, several art experts convened in his studio and concluded that after 1987 his work had seriously declined. Indeed . . . Four untitled works from 1988 confirm that de Kooning forgot more about painting than experts will ever know. In one canvas, roiling red strokes parry and thrust with the energy of a bullfight, calling to mind one of de Kooning’s few peers, Picasso. Another, irradiated with creamy luminescence and ranged with red clots, diaphanous fans of lavender, blue tendrils, and yellow knots, is sui generis, a regeneration of spirit after 84 years upon this earth. Far from raging at the dying of the light, de Kooning could claim, more truthfully even than Pollock did, “I am nature.”