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.

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 galleries), but it wasn’t as overwhelming as the previous retrospective, and the works had more breathing room. The famous canvases that were missing in 1983 (monuments of postwar painting such as Pink Angels, ca. 1945; Excavation, 1950; Woman I, 1950–52; and Easter Monday, 1955–56) were all in glorious evidence—a testament to Elderfield’s perseverance. Drawings (though there weren’t many of them) were integrated into the exhibition, and sculpture was installed to complement paintings of the same period, thus allowing for a more coherent narrative of the artist’s progression without the arbitrary segregation by medium. And though de Kooning’s late work was expansively represented at MoMA, it seemed to evolve out of, rather than overwhelm, that of earlier periods.

These curatorial accomplishments no doubt account for a good deal of the nearly universal approbation the artist has enjoyed from critics in the past months. Just about everyone who has written about the exhibition thus far has (justifiably) lavished praise on de Kooning, and I have yet to meet an artist who hasn’t raved about the show. Perhaps MoMA’s balanced presentation of each stage in de Kooning’s aesthetic progression—Elderfield’s hang gave pride of place but not exaggerated weight to the canonical work of the ’40s and ’50s, instead underscoring the remarkable consistency of his subject’s aesthetic concerns across eras and styles—encouraged a more expansive, and more generous, picture of the artist than may have been possible in the mid-’80s (when, we should recall, de Kooning was still alive and active).

Of course, the art world and its attitudes have changed a great deal since then, too. We have finally reached a moment in which it is permissible for a broader constituency of the art world to publicly appreciate de Kooning again. And not just appreciate him but adore him, shower his feats and even his frailties with rose petals and paeans. This was a long time coming. In the mid-’40s, de Kooning established himself as the supreme painter of New York, the man who could work a brush like no one else. As the years passed, however, his prowess might have remained unquestioned by most, but the value of that prowess came under reconsideration. Many critics, Clement Greenberg most notable among them, began to blame de Kooning’s seductive example for the proliferation of second-rate daubers whose high-impasto action paintings overpopulated the galleries on Tenth Street. And after the ’50s, the times were by and large inhospitable to painting, especially the paint-loaded kind. Pop artists, Conceptualists, and their descendants among the Pictures generation regarded canvas and oil paint with suspicion, preferring a kind of artmaking that would interrogate, rather than testify to, the originality for which the brushstroke had become an emblem. It was not even a year before the Whitney retrospective, after all, that Hal Foster’s essay on the “Expressive Fallacy” was published, puncturing the belief in natural signs that modernist gesturality often presumes. By the time of the 1983 show, the revival of expressionism at the hands of artists such as Julian Schnabel threatened to enshroud artmaking once again with the aura of “authenticity” and instill within newly wealthy collectors the desire to adorn their yuppie domains with something that looked like Art. By then, the most vocal cheerleaders for de Kooning were older, more conservative critics (like Sidney Tillim, who reviewed the Whitney retrospective for this magazine).

If a broader range of historians and critics today are able to view de Kooning sympathetically, it is in part because, surprisingly, many of them see the artist on a continuum with the concerns of postmodernism rather than in opposition to it. Martha Schwendener, for example, writing in the Village Voice, recently observed half-approvingly of de Kooning’s “Woman” paintings that they figure “woman” as that body on which mediation and commodification most conspicuously happen. Two years ago, art historian John J. Curley published an essay that compared the repetitive curved brushstrokes on the surface of A Suburb in Havana, 1958, to the repetitive architecture of McDonald’s franchises (a new and notable development along the highways of the ’40s and ’50s that de Kooning traveled), concluding that the artist was beginning to generate, if ambivalently, a kind of brushstroke that was at once anchored in its own materiality and subject to the logic of mediation. Remarkably, these readings are possible in part because of the postmodern turn of the ’80s that had for decades disqualified de Kooning from serious consideration.

This claim that de Kooning had by the late ’50s begun to grapple with the conventionality and repeatability of painting as a sign is not an argument tendered by the exhibition, however. Had it been, the show would have included more collages featuring magazine cutouts, and de Kooning’s fabulously squalid Marilyn Monroe of 1954 (from the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, New York) would have taken her rightful place among the other “Woman” paintings of the mid-’50s.

Rather, the de Kooning of Fifty-Third Street was presented as a master. The exhibition was bracketed at the entry points with two oversize photographs of de Kooning at work, one in which the artist was assiduously laboring on a canvas at close range, the other in which he was standing back and examining a work from afar. This man was no oracle of action painting channeling the slap and dash of the modern spirit, the photos argue, but rather a calculating genius committed to meticulous construction and detached consideration. The catalogue appropriately offers painstaking and impressive formal analyses of individual works, along with essays by conservators that detail the compositional evolution of dozens of canvases. Dotted with comparisons to pre- or early-modern artists (Duccio, Michelangelo, Rubens, and Poussin among them), the catalogue endows de Kooning with a classical, Janson-worthy ancestry.

Such guidance from exhibited photographs and the catalogue, as well as the selection of pieces on display, encouraged a connoisseurial scrutiny of individual passages within each painting—which is, of course, something that de Kooning’s work rewards in abundance. In such a mode, we can admire the artist’s ability to render a potent conflict between the virtual and the literal with every brushstroke, often by riffing on conventions of chiaroscuro: In Attic, 1949, he does it with thin sweeps of black paint topped with thin, companion sweeps of white, almost as highlights, thus making it seem as if there were a light source selectively illuminating some of the brushstrokes. In Easter Monday, de Kooning did something similar, this time dipping his brush into a glob of paint that was blue on one side and cream on the other; dragging the brush along the canvas, he produced a modeled brushstroke whose shading (particularly in the angle that appears in the upper left quadrant) suggests a kind of three-dimensionality that conflicts with the actual three-dimensional features of the thick paint on canvas (a bulge of paint is rendered in a dark tone, for example, when the rules of chiaroscuro dictate that protrusion should be light).

This sort of close viewing yields its own satisfactions, not merely with large gestural abstractions that paradoxically seem to demand that the viewer stand back from them but with small objects as well, and it was with the little things that the exhibition delivered some of its most unexpected pleasures. In a vitrine among the paintings of women from the mid- to late ’60s rested a dozen untitled bronze objects from 1969, most less than a foot long, each ostensibly representing a woman. Mediation made a cameo appearance here, too—the silhouette of a Coke bottle that de Kooning used as a support for the clay in one work protruded from top and bottom, interrupting the representational with the commodified real. Raised seams of bronze encircling the figures were left behind by the two halves of the mold, testifying to the repetitions of the casting process. But the works also ran in excess of such industrial paradigms. For example, de Kooning staged these figures in odd ways for photographs when he brought them back from Italy: The catalogue presents us with a photograph in which the artist had draped them over a rock, making it look as if the sculptures were sunning themselves. In another photo they are lined up along a plywood-plank “fence,” as if waiting for someone to offer them a ride. These objects possess an unlikely animus, seeming ready for life beyond the artist’s hand. They seem to have escaped the artist’s hand in formal terms as well: The sheen of bronze doesn’t ennoble the figures so much as recall the sliminess of the clay from which they were sculpted, and the objects look as though they might shoot out of one’s grasp like a well-worn bar of soap. As a consequence, these works offer an encomium on the weirdness of stuff. Shape and surface alike attested to the more disturbing features of material: One “figure” lay outrageously like a discarded bronze chicken leg (or even a turd). In such works, the gesture sinks and gets lost as if in quicksand. Goopiness of material threatens to overcome artistic agency. With such sculpture, and even with his paintings from the late ’60s, de Kooning made what might have been his most daring discovery: Sometimes material is not something one masters, but rather something to which one ecstatically succumbs.

Sarah K. Rich is an associate professor of art history at the Pennsylvania State University.