The dominant view of de Kooning's brushstrokes maintains that they were heroic masculine gestures, deposits of existential Self; I prefer to imagine that they were self- (not Self-) propelled. They have what a biologist would call motility. This is also true of the career as a whole, which was a kind of motor fueled by such self-recycling strategies as repainting, collaging, tracing, and opaque-projecting earlier work. But eventually, as demonstrated by two recent surveys celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the artist's birth, all the movement ground to a painful and ambiguous halt.
Both exhibitions proposed that we look at de Kooning's career through the lens of his very late work. The modest but intelligent Mitchell-Innes & Nash show, "Garden in Delft," took its title from a 1987 canvas, and the first work on display there was Untitled, 1988. At Gagosian Gallery, in a beautiful retrospective curated by David Whitney and studded with masterpieces both familiar and unfamiliar, ten paintings from the 1980s (including four from 1988) hung in the showcase gallery. They threatened to steal the show from some thirty earlier and better works.
A little history is in order here. In 1978 Elaine de Kooning returned to Bill's side (they had been separated since 1955) to sober him up. After two years, he started painting in earnest again, hitting his stride between 1983 and 1985 with over 150 canvases in which ribbons of primary color play slowly across white and pale pastel expanses. But at the same time, as Robert Storr reports in the catalogue of the 1995 San Francisco MOMA exhibition "Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings, the 1980s," the artist was getting tired and confused. By 1986, at age eighty-two, he was increasingly relying on assistants to execute one of his favorite tricks, the tracing of parts of earlier works onto fresh canvases. Still more disturbing, according to the studio assistants Elaine decided to encourage a reexpansion of de Kooning's palette, something taken further by a new assistant in mid-1987. This helps explain the Peter Max colors of the 1988 paintings--for example, the red, orange-yellow, turquoise, violet, and yellow-green nested arcs that crown the 1988 painting in the MI & N show. De Kooning's pace slowed in 1989 after Elaine died, and he finally received a probable diagnosis of Alzheimer's. He stopped painting for good in early 1990.
Given the art business, it is no surprise that we are seeing more of these very late paintings, despite the questions about them. "The Late Paintings" cautiously included only three works from 1987 and none after. Matthew Marks Gallery showed a dozen 1987 paintings in 2001, and now a handful of the 1988 works have been widely seen in Manhattan. The problem is not just their color. …