Midway through the Museum of Modern Art’s enormous Willem de Kooning exhibition, the curator’s effort at sobriety, balance and perspective breaks down. Lined up on one wall, side by side, like a platoon of drunken and painted harlots, de Kooning’s landmark 1950 “Woman” paintings take over and spread their mayhem in every direction. They leer and squint and mock, and the power of their presence overwhelms the judicious argument that has been carefully superimposed on this methodical retrospective: That de Kooning’s career is best understood as a series of formal problems and solutions, a painterly quest to rethink how abstraction and representation can coexist, how the two-dimensional surface of the canvas can contain both the flat patterning impulse of abstraction and the illusionist three-dimensional space hard won by painters working centuries before de Kooning first picked up a brush.
Once again, the infamous “Woman” paintings — often cited as evidence of de Kooning’s misogyny — dominate the discussion. So much so that the most shocking conclusion one might take from this show, the hit of the New York season since it opened Sept. 18, is that they are somehow self-portraits, vivid self-representations in drag of a painter who may well have felt he was pimping his own talent in as many directions as his women are twisted, pulled, stretched and broken.
They certainly refuse to be politely contained within the formal bookends of this exhibition, which opens with two still lifes that the Dutch-born artist made about 1921, while he was a teenager and a student at a traditional art academy in Rotterdam. The better of them is done in dark crayon and charcoal, a hushed and meticulously rendered image of two jugs and a plate sitting on a table, all three of them like foster children of silence and slow time. The show ends, many rooms later, with de Kooning’s last works, made with the help of assistants while the artist was suffering from progressive mental deterioration. The thick, gently curving lines of these late abstractions feel like out-of-doors works, meditations on landscape and sun, yet their contours, their undulating planes and sense of depth are strangely reminiscent of the artist’s still life some six decades earlier.
That is very much the conclusion that curator John Elderfield would like audiences to draw from this survey of the artist’s career. There is a continuity in the terrifying and protean output of de Kooning, who dominated American painting for decades in the middle of the 20th century. The “Woman” paintings aren’t exceptional but are merely manifestations of the painter’s ongoing efforts to solve formal problems, the most engaging of which was how to create a new kind of pictorial space.
The argument is worked out in detail in the catalogue’s main essay, and it helps make sense of an artist whose career seems superficially like an erratic badminton game between the will to abstraction and the need for some kind of grounding in representational art. De Kooning said that he saw no difference between the two. But while the earliest juvenile works and the late, spare abstractions do suggest a similar sense of how space is depicted, they have an even more profound affinity in their mutual quietness and austerity. Compared with everything else in this show — the electrical energy of the late 1940s black-and-white abstractions that established him as a painter to be reckoned with, the giant and jarring “full arm sweep” landscapes of the late 1950s or the fleshy pink 1960s images of women that look like Chaim Soutine’s paintings of meat — the early and late works feel like a quiet prelude and hushed postlude to a career defined by violent energies of trial and error.