Eye of the Storm a Clear Look at the Turbulent Willem De Kooning

Article excerpt

WILLEM DE KOONING at his best is the stormiest of masters. His brush strokes hook and sweep. His figures fly to pieces - a breast becomes a rolling eye, shoulders a horizon.

There's always been a rolling turbulence about him. Nothing in his art moves in one way only. Figurative, abstract, avant-garde yet old-fashioned, it owes as much to jazz and the crackle of Manhattan as it does to his countrymen Vincent van Gogh and Frans Hals. De Kooning has just turned 90. Holland-born and trained, that giant of the New York School is America's Dutch Master. No living painter has done more to loosen and extend the easel painter's art.

"Willem de Kooning: Paintings," which opened recently at the National Gallery of Art, does something unexpected: It allows the artist's frenzied pictures free rein, yet puts them into balance. This show hurls itself upon you like some curling, crushing wave - yet even as it does so it makes de Kooning's oceanic art absolutely clear.

It's not a vast exhibition. With 76 pictures, it's about a third the size of the de Kooning retrospective 10 years ago at the Whitney in New York, but it's nowhere near as scattered. Nor is it as mixed as the Hirshhorn's recent survey, that record of a palship between painter and collector that opened last October just across the Mall.

This show aims for grandeur. Its curators sought the painter's finest works, and for the most part they got them. Rightly they excluded his big galumphing bronzes, his half-cartoony sketches, and the scribbles he produced (with his left hand) while staring at the TV. Like most improvising chance-takers, de Kooning often missed. He seldom does so here.

Although still alive, he's senile and finished now, and this show fastens him to history. …