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 1 960s 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 Flderfield, avoided these mistakes. Sure, the show was large and, to some, still crowded (almost two hundred pieces hlled the sixth-floor galleries), bur 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 L 1950-52; and Easter Monday, 1955-56) were all in glorious evidence--a testament to Hldertield'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 vet 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 Green berg most notable among them, began to blame de Kooning's seductive example for the proliferation of second-rate daubers whose high-impasto action paintings overpopu-lated 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, Conceptualises, and their descendants among the Pictures generation regarded canvas and oil paint with suspicion, preferring a kind of art-making 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. …