New York

Willem de Kooning

Gagosian Gallery / Mitchell-Innes & Nash

The dominant view of de Kooning’s brushstrokes maintains that they were heroic masculine gestures, deposits of existential Self; I prefer to imagine that they were self- (not Self-) propelled. They have what a biologist would call motility. This is also true of the career as a whole, which was a kind of motor fueled by such self-recycling strategies as repainting, collaging, tracing, and opaque-projecting earlier work. But eventually, as demonstrated by two recent surveys celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the artist’s birth, all the movement ground to a painful and ambiguous halt.

Both exhibitions proposed that we look at de Kooning’s career through the lens of his very late work. The modest but intelligent Mitchell-Innes & Nash show, “Garden in Delft,” took its title from a 1987 canvas, and the first work on display there was Untitled, 1988. At Gagosian Gallery, in a beautiful retrospective curated by David Whitney and studded with masterpieces both familiar and unfamiliar, ten paintings from the 1980s (including four from 1988) hung in the showcase gallery. They threatened to steal the show from some thirty earlier and better works.

A little history is in order here. In 1978 Elaine de Kooning returned to Bill’s side (they had been separated since 1955) to sober him up. After two years, he started painting in earnest again, hitting his stride between 1983 and 1985 with over 150 canvases in which ribbons of primary color play slowly across white and pale pastel expanses. But at the same time, as Robert Storr reports in the catalogue of the 1995 San Francisco MoMA exhibition “Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings, the 1980s,” the artist was getting tired and confused. By 1986, at age eighty-two, he was increasingly relying on assistants to execute one of his favorite tricks, the tracing of parts of earlier works onto fresh canvases. Still more disturbing, according to the studio assistants Elaine decided to encourage a reexpansion of de Kooning’s palette, something taken further by a new assistant in mid-1987. This helps explain the Peter Max colors of the 1988 paintings—for example, the red, orange-yellow, turquoise, violet, and yellow-green nested arcs that crown the 1988 painting in the MI&N show. De Kooning’s pace slowed in 1989 after Elaine died, and he finally received a probable diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. He stopped painting for good in early 1990.

Given the art business, it is no surprise that we are seeing more of these very late paintings, despite the questions about them. “The Late Paintings” cautiously included only three works from 1987 and none after. Matthew Marks Gallery showed a dozen 1987 paintings in 2001, and now a handful of the 1988 works have been widely seen in Manhattan. The problem is not just their color. Storr sees their vortices and obsessively repainted curves as evidence of a neurological disorder, and difficult as it is to get inside someone’s head, I am inclined to agree. Some of them are beautiful; all of them have moments of randomness and repetition that are scary.

What is remarkable about the late work is not that de Kooning started to disappear from it and from himself, around 1987, but that he had already devoted the first part of the decade to a methodical self-erasure, as if one-upping Rauschenberg’s undoing of one of his drawings thirty years before. The paintings seem set on depriving old fans of every experience they valued in the work from the ’50s on. Where are the endlessly adjusted acid colors and tinted grays, the textures that ranged from crumbling to unctuous, the headlong gestures at once massive and tiny, as if he controlled every hair on the widest brush? What we get by the mid-’80s is a primary palette, a franker grid, a matter-of-fact paint application, and a deliberate send-up of the brushwork that made de Kooning famous. Now the strokes go carefully round hairpin turns and only give the illusion of crossing, for in fact they often stop to let one another through. These works have a lot of currency among some very canny painters, from Brice Marden to Elizabeth Murray to David Reed. Still, I resent them.

But that is too easy. When it comes to shape and stroke, maybe de Kooning was never as frank and spontaneous as I had imagined. Look again at the stately curves and oddly detailed, cartoony passages in the ’80s work and you see lots of Arshile Gorky, de Kooning’s early friend and mentor, and therefore lots of early de Kooning, too. At MI&N, the juxtaposition of Garden in Delft with a little-known 1937–38 masterpiece, Untitled (The Cow Jumps Over the Moon), made this point. This return to the early work has been noted before. More surprising were the pings sent back from the 1980s to the heart of the career. Take Untitled, the 1961 painting lent to Gagosian by the Rose Art Museum: Its grand central collision of strokes and splatters is as deliberate as any of the more obvious 1980s deliberations. The lesson of these two shows is that looking backward at de Kooning makes him seem to have been a supreme illusionist all along. They also demonstrated, perhaps inadvertently, that there is a big difference between de Kooning’s greatest works and his latest ones. In the latter, the strokes seem painted; in the former, they seem to be painting. If it’s a choice of illusions, I’ll take the one where the impulse of painting is so strong that the artist virtually disappears, ground into the present tense of pigment moving across canvas.

Harry Cooper is curator of modern art at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University.