Until recently the only Willem De Kooning paintings I knew well were the big, tumultuous ones in the “Woman” series from the early 1950’s. After seeing the artist’s current retrospective at MoMA, called, simply, de Kooning: A Retrospective, I realized that “Woman” marked just one passage in his career. Like no other painter except Picasso, de Kooning had periods. The friend I visited with, a Dutchwoman, taught me how to pronounce the artist’s name correctly (VILL-um duh KOH-ning), and then observed that de Kooning had all that Picasso had except for genius. I see what she was getting at. Each of De Kooning’s periods is well-represented at MoMA, and each is powerfully reminiscent of the work of one or more of his contemporaries. As I walked through the galleries I recalled Picasso, Chagall, Leger, Kandinsky, Rothko and, greatly, De Kooning’s Springs, Long Island neighbor Jackson Pollock.
But I also found in de Kooning’s work, more than in the work of any of these other painters, a pleasure in the physical act of painting. In De Kooning, even more than in Pollock, the hand of the painter is insistent. This is especially so in the later canvases. My friend noticed that after the late 1960’s De Kooning rarely lifted his paintbrush from the surface, and moved paint back and forth in luscious, churning strokes that turned in and around on themselves. If Picasso had a masterful, plastic intelligence that could shape any material at will, then de Kooning had an intelligence about saturating a canvas with life. He rarely leaves a corner unoccupied or uncomposed. In his last years, he was painting large, luminous, white-based canvases cut through with lines of strong color. They’re like maps of a place he knows well.