Willem De Kooning: Matthew Marks Gallery. (Reviews)

Article excerpt

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 clean forms seem to unwind in slow motion, as if each picture were a testing laboratory for some kind of dense, pliable material. …