Retrospectives are generally meant to shift public and critical opinion. But this retrospective feels more like a reaffirmation, allowing the viewer to keep on believing what he has thought all along, going all the way back to the prescient judgment of the critic everyone loves to hate, Clement Greenberg, who said in 1948 that de Kooning’s work “lacks a final incisiveness of composition” in part because the artist was struggling so hard to hide or suppress his “draughtsman’s gift.”
And so this show dives deep into the artist’s work only to come back to the surface with the usual conclusions: that he was an artist of great skill, perhaps too much so to be comfortable as an abstract painter in the heroic age of devil-may-care American painting in the late 1940s and ’50s; that he was perhaps too productive and facile, too inclined to live by one of his many oft-inscrutable maxims, “you have to change to stay the same”; that his work was uneven and declined in the end; that his struggle to reconcile figurative and abstract painting yielded more dynamic tension than satisfying resolution.
It also reinforces the sense that he was probably misogynistic, or at least deeply conflicted about women. No matter how resolutely one focuses on de Kooning’s formal accomplishments, the women he painted in the 1950s, and later in lubricious hues of pink, are unnecessarily loud and vulgar, with lurid smiles, enormous breasts, gaping eyes and a carnivalesque sense of sexual power and volatility.
When you finally encounter them, arrayed like images on an iconostasis, the wall of icons that separates the ordinary worshiper from the priestly realms of an Orthodox church, they issue a brazen challenge: Can you get past these paintings? True devotion to de Kooning depends on it.
Those inclined to try will focus on how closely these works relate to more “pure” abstractions made just before, works such as the 1949 “Attic” and the 1950 “Excavation,” which seem full of vaguely human forms, bits of leg or arm or torso, strewn to the very edges of the canvas. De Kooning worked, in many cases, by directly transferring bits and pieces from one work to another, a biopsy of leg, for example, cut from a more representational work allowed to grow in the petri dish of a more-abstract painting. This continuity of purpose and material across his works allows one, perhaps, to think of his 1950 “Woman” paintings not as actual depictions or parodies of women, but as extensions into representational territory of basically abstract concerns.
It is also possible that his women leer at us with the come-hither lips of harlots because no other mask would be sufficiently powerful to bear up to the magnetically colorful and kinetic power of their bodies. After more than 40 years of ever-increasing focus on the purity of abstract form, decades after Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” or Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s distended ladies of the Berlin street, what other sort of smile could a lady wear in a de Kooning painting?