De Kooning's Fractured Genius

Article excerpt

Byline: Blake Gopnik

A blockbuster new show explores the great painter's messy reality.

We are at a moment in art when "isms" are dead, when instinct trumps theory, when abstraction and figuration live happily together, when variety is better than a single style, and when political incorrectness rules.

We are at the perfect moment, that is, to revisit Willem de Kooning, the great American painter who died in 1997, at 92, and whose work pre-figured our current trends. On Sept. 18, the Museum of Modern Art in New York is launching the first all-media de Kooning retrospective. All 17,000 square feet of the museum's sixth floor will be devoted to it.

De Kooning is one of our most famous artists. We've heard about his drinking and womanizing. Since 1974, we've noted his pictures' record prices. And we've read plenty on his decline into dementia in the 1980s, and the paintings he kept making despite it. But we still don't know what to do with his art. "The range of talent and innovation in de Kooning is similar to that of Cezanne," said Richard Shiff, a great Cezanne scholar who is publishing a new book on de Kooning. John Elderfield, the MoMA show's curator, writes that his painter embraces "difficulty, resistance, and ambiguity."

De Kooning is often billed more simply than that, as Jackson Pollock's chief rival in abstract expressionism, although de Kooning himself disliked the "-ism. …