New York

Willem de Kooning

Matthew Marks Gallery

Like an unsigned will, Willem de Kooning’s 1980s paintings ended his career with a kind of divisive largesse. For some viewers, the aged de Kooning is a kind of Yeatsian hero, sailing off into his own Byzantium. To detractors, he’s a pitiable mannequin, performing wobbly pantomimes of his familiar painterly gestures. We still don’t know the exact nature or trajectory of de Kooning’s illness. We do know, however according to Gary Garrels, curator of the traveling survey “Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings, the 1980s,” that there was a turning point of sorts in 1987, at which time the artist’s health, energy, and concentration weakened precipitously. So this show, focusing exclusively on the “downturn” year, had a daring, almost brazen air.

Of the dozen big canvases here (almost half of the twenty-six painted that year), a few were strikingly confident, offering a reproof to those of us (including myself) who had assumed the decade saw a steady diminishing of de Kooning’s abilities. One Untitled was a brassy, jubilant reveille of a picture, with wiggling yellow bands unfurling from a spool-like configuration; another was a gorgeous free fall of crimson undulations. It’s surprising that neither was included in Garrels’s 1995 exhibition. At least for ’80s aficionados, both are likely to enter the ranks of de Kooning’s finest works, on a par with the great colliding meanders of 1982.

The remaining canvases were more uneven, offering grist for the pessimists: passages of bleachy color, strokes that seemed disconnected or glibly anchored to one another, and above all, the use of white as a straightforward background. Occasionally one’s eye stumbled on something still more unsettling: dead brushstrokes, patched together from dry, halfhearted corrections.

Yet even in the weaker paintings, these sporadic frailties ultimately give way to an overall impression of sureness and freshness. Across smooth Mondrianesque surfaces, long dean forms seem to unwind in slow motion, as if each picture were a testing laboratory for some kind of dense, pliable material. The eye glides over them calmly, like a hand along a banister. The tempo, which at first seems uniform, is in fact delightfully variable, accelerating through gooseneck curves and then slowing into lariats and culs-de-sac. The pictures’ swooping rhythms suggest a born-again Mondrian, a limbered-up version of the stiff theosophist, as if his taste for boogie-woogie had finally sunk into his hips and arms.

They also imply a neater, happier version of de Kooning himself, purged of grit and angst. This strangely Gene Kelly-ish de Kooning is hard to reconcile with the conventional picture of the artist as a land of explosive slatherer, a broody existentialist. To enjoy these paintings, in other words, is to find oneself engaging in a little tacit revisionism. In light of their upbeat immediacy, earlier hallmarks like Excavation begin to look portentous; the vortex abstractions of the late '70s grandiose. Our notion of de Kooning's basic identity shifts and recenters, tuned to a strain of comic high-spiritedness.

Is this new de Kooning a lightweight? Some of the time, yes. There’s no question that the goofy fluency of the late late paintings lacks the gravitas of Pollock or Rothko or Serra. They don’t have anything like the “transcendental pessimism” that Kenneth Clarke argued was the defining hallmark of “old-age style.” But it’s possible that these paintings are deliberate refusals of such expectations. De Kooning had always resisted the confining earnestness of Abstract Expressionism. Back in the ’50s, the idea of action painting was so narrowly construed that Harold Rosenberg felt it necessary to ask de Kooning if such a thing as a slow action painting was even possible. “Yes,” de Kooning replied, but it took hm more than thirty years to turn that answer, and its spirit of contrarian permissiveness, into these calm and airy affirmations.

Alexi Worth