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View of “De Kooning: A Retrospective,” 2011–12. From left: Untitled XI, 1975; Seated Woman on a Bench, 1972; . . . Whose Name Was Writ in Water, 1975; Untitled I, 1977; Screams of Children Come from Seagulls (Untitled XX), 1975; Untitled, 1977.

Willem de Kooning

View of “De Kooning: A Retrospective,” 2011–12. From left: Untitled XI, 1975; Seated Woman on a Bench, 1972; . . . Whose Name Was Writ in Water, 1975; Untitled I, 1977; Screams of Children Come from Seagulls (Untitled XX), 1975; Untitled, 1977.

THE LAST TIME a major American museum attempted a retrospective of Willem de Kooning’s work, it did not, by most accounts, go well. Critics were fatigued by the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1983 behemoth, which brought together more than 250 works by the Abstract Expressionist, with the paintings crammed next to one another in small rooms, and the drawings and sculpture inexplicably quarantined in separate spaces. The show was top-heavy with recent paintings, many complained (with work from the 1960s to the early ’80s in mind), and major examples of the artist’s earlier and more influential work were missing.

“De Kooning: A Retrospective,” the recently concluded exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, organized by curator emeritus John Elderfield, avoided these mistakes. Sure, the show was large and, to some, still crowded (almost two hundred pieces filled the sixth-floor

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