But these arguments let de Kooning off the hook too easily, and they undermine the pure, expressionist force of the “Woman” paintings. They are monstrous figures, cobbled together from psychosexual fixations — in a 1950 “Woman” painting on paper and cardboard, de Kooning simply cut and pasted a toothy lady smile from a magazine — and popular imagery. There’s a reason we remember them so clearly while the other corners of de Kooning’s career remain more obscure, including his wonderful and sometimes-laugh-out-loud sculpture. They are his most memorable and best work, despite the societal violence against women that they seem to echo and perhaps enact.
If you want to tame them, or contain them within a framework that doesn’t condemn de Kooning as misogynistic, the “self portrait” thesis is attractive. As images of the artist himself, emerging from the stresses and strains of trying to reconcile irreconcilables, trying to cope with growing fame, struggling to manage his own sexual power over women, they have a kind of pathos. Their anti-woman power vanishes, and one sees not buxom, pushy caricatures, but a terrified man enacting a persona that is growing out of his control.
It’s a reading that injects biography back into a show that wants to focus on the formal. But “de Kooning: A Retrospective” is a difficult exhibition to process without some basic empathy for de Kooning himself, some sense of pity for the talent charging off in all directions, forging but never finishing, blasting a painting of a parkway in New England with so much savage intensity that one can feel the car careening off the road. De Kooning can seem like too many people wrapped up in one, like a cross between the composer Paul Hindemith, who could pump out distinctive works in almost any idiom, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, a sad and self-destructive symptom of the age he chronicled. In the end, you feel as if you’re doing for de Kooning something he never managed to do for himself: stitching the life into a whole, connecting the erratic brilliance of the various de Koonings who seem to jump out from behind the doors of the haunted house of his career.
Ultimately, the retrospective leaves the viewer about where he started: impressed, horrified, alienated and bit melancholy about de Kooning and the century he defined.
is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through Jan. 9. For more information, go to