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REVIEW

Thrilling glimpses of de Kooning

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / October 16, 2011

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NEW YORK - I sometimes fantasize about seeing the work of Willem de Kooning - the subject of a blistering retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York - reflected in a funhouse mirror, a wind-whipped puddle, an oil slick. Would all the wobbles and curves in his work straighten out? The blood-bubbling colors cool down? Some glimpsed ghost of a form crystallize into a clean-lined goddess?

I doubt it. Two wrongs don’t make a right. But two wrong turns?

De Kooning (1904-97) was the great 20th-century master of righting wrong turns, and then, as often as not, re-wronging them. He took these turns with his eyes closed, with water mixed in his paint, with alcohol in his arteries. A stowaway immigrant from the Netherlands with classical training and an apprenticeship in sign painting, he had ace after ace up his sleeve, but what he enjoyed most was tossing them to the floor.

“I’m in my element when I am a little bit out of this world,’’ he said. “When I’m falling, I’m doing all right; when I’m slipping, I say, hey, this is interesting!’’

De Kooning was not, as the critic Hilton Kramer notoriously said of Philip Guston, “a mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum.’’ His palpable virtuosity never left the arena. But he threw everything in its way, longing, it seems, for that sensation of tripping, of falling.

The thrill of looking at de Kooning’s work is tied to a similar sensation: the excitement of watching anyone truly gifted push repeatedly into the unknown, the unmastered - and then mastering it.

“Content,’’ he famously said, “is a glimpse.’’ De Kooning once told his brother-in-law, Conrad Fried, that the phrase - and de Kooning’s related description of his art as a “slipping glimpse’’ - derived from memories of Amsterdam prostitutes flashing their breasts for a fraction of a second. (As de Kooning recalled this, said Fried, “He would make this gesture of moving his hand across his chest.’’)

Fried’s recollection, though hardly the end of it, feels apt, since it reminds us what a carnal painter de Kooning was, and how mischievous. His other famous quote - “Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented’’ - should never be far from your mind as you traverse this show, which bobbles with body parts slippingly glimpsed.

Organized by MoMA’s John Elderfield, the retrospective is presented in a context of slight institutional defensiveness: MoMA did give de Kooning an early retrospective in 1969, but it did not collect his work with the same avidity as the work of abstract expressionist peers such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, and Robert Motherwell.

This was awkward: De Kooning was better than all of them.

Such perceived slights are often exaggerated, but they dovetail in this case with a lingering sense of injustice at the critic Clement Greenberg’s reservations about de Kooning’s refusal to go completely abstract.

At any rate, if the good people at MoMA have anything to feel sheepish about, they are going all out to make amends. The show boasts almost 200 works and a doorstopper catalog. (It’s a serious commitment, but I recommend reading it together with “De Kooning: An American Master,’’ the stupendous 2004 biography by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan.) Elderfield has everything one could want from a top-flight curator and scholar. His only weakness is a doggedness which can occasionally suck the joy from his subjects.

Early works in the show briskly establish de Kooning’s academic credentials. You see how much effort he expended at Rotterdam’s Academy of Fine Arts and Applied Sciences in “Still Life (Bowl, Pitcher and Jug),’’ an immaculate tonal study in crayon and charcoal that took him 600 hours to complete - a whole year working two days a week.

“Draw what you see and not what you think!’’ was his teacher’s injunction. De Kooning took note.

He arrived in New York in 1926 and became part of a circle of avant-garde artists that included John Graham, Arshile Gorky, and Stuart Davis. After flirting with Matisse and various modes of geometric abstraction, he turned back to drawing and painting portraits. One such drawing, “Self-Portrait With Imaginary Brother,’’ reveals an abiding admiration for Ingres.

It’s a riveting work, with an emotional specificity lacking elsewhere in the show. De Kooning’s later greatness, it has to be acknowledged, was inseparable from an emotional blowsiness - the endless, annihilating drama of the brilliant, wounded man staggering, drooling, cursing, caterwauling . . . and performing astonishing flips.

The early painted portraits of his wife-to-be, Elaine, are wonderfully strange. They enact a drama that seems initially to be all about drawing: “Where to put this line? Here? No, here!’’ But what is finally indelible is the color: in “Queen of Hearts,’’ sunflower yellow, both musky and hot pink, and bright turquoise divided from a rich green by a vertical orange stripe. The same hues but without the hot pink appear in the wonderful “Seated Woman.’’

Of course, for de Kooning as for Matisse, the point was ultimately that drawing and color were indivisible. Grasping this, de Kooning increasingly excused line from the duties of description and gave it other purposes - not just overall design but all manner of localized excitements.

In these early pictures, you feel him wrestling with problems of space, trying both to compress it and carve it out, now with line, now with color, now with the paint’s facture (its surface qualities), with erasures and ghost contours, with smudges, scrapes and swipes. There’s a profound awkwardness to the results. But you know as you look at these works that the artist is in the grip of something, and murderously close to finding it.

He does, and of course, the results speak for themselves. An astonishing idiom - or, really, a series of constantly morphing idioms - emerges in the mid-to-late ’40s and extending into the ’50s, earning de Kooning a reputation as the most interesting painter on either side of the Atlantic.

He combines Cubist ambiguities of space with riotous color (after a breakthrough series in black and white) and painted marks that seem to change speed before your eyes: fluid and dream-slow one moment, high speed or hectically compressed the next.

And of course, de Kooning’s wristly line, curving then hooking, the marks thinning and swelling in unpredictable ways, the distressed surface suggesting concealed layers and endless revisions. There is in these paintings a congested richness of incident that keeps the eye constantly on the move.

At the center of the show is de Kooning’s third series of “Woman’’ paintings, begun straight after his masterpiece, “Excavation,’’ was shipped off to the Venice Biennale. Five of these daunting works are displayed in a row here. They combine vigorous mark-making with big shoulders and busts, leering grins, and comically demented eyes.

They’re certainly not waiting for my approval - and yet still, I can’t make up my mind about them. Mostly, I think they fail. Histrionic, hectoring, unresolved, unlovable. And yet all these qualities, seen from 10 degrees to the left, can feel like virtues. Few people could deny their centrality to de Kooning’s oeuvre - he returned to the theme again and again - or their importance to postwar art generally. But seeing five in a row had a scorching effect on me. “For what?’’ I kept wondering, finding no answers I could relate to.

It’s pretty much all scintillating after this, the only weak points being some sloppy productions in the mid-1960s, his “Sag Harbor’’ phase (though it’s not all poor). Much better is his slightly earlier, so-called “Pastoral’’ phase in the early ’60s, a period which saw de Kooning move from Lower Manhattan to the East End of Long Island.

The relations between colors and space, especially in “Door to the River’’ and “Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point,’’ produce a stronger sensation of bliss in me than any paintings I can think of. Plastered with yolky yellows over pastel pinks, hints of blue, and large areas of green- or gray-tinged off-white, these pictures breathe and expand. They are cosmically lovely.

The late work, too, made when de Kooning’s memory was going, is masterful. Gradually reducing his color palette to red, yellow, and blue, he set characteristic shapes and contours against cleaner, whiter grounds - though still with ghost contours visible beneath. The results, inspired by Stuart Davis’s remembered advice to “Keep it scarce, keep it scarce!’’ have the quality of a spectral memory of dancing or lovemaking. They can reduce you to tears.

As can the image, from Stevens and Swan’s biography, of the ambulance arriving on a regular basis at de Kooning’s Long Island home to rescue him from yet another round of binge-drinking. He never made it easy on himself.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

DE KOONING: A Retrospective At: Museum of Modern Art, New York. Through Jan. 9. 212-708-9400. www.moma.org