Willem de Kooning, Pirate (Untitled II), 1981. Oil on canvas, 88" x 77."
Untitled XIX, 1981. Oil on canvas, 77" x 88."
Rider (Untitled VII), 1981. Oil on canvas, 70" x 80."
In the Renaissance, a central debate in painting was whether colorito or designo should be the primary, organizing factor in a picture. Partisans of Michelangelo favored designo, and fans of Titian insisted colorito was the most important aspect. Late in his long career, Titian declared emphatically that he had found the grand bargain between both. Painters since then have, whether they did so consciously or not, generally favor one over the other. Matisse grappled with problem quite self-consciously as he tried to meld his advanced color sense with cubist innovation. In the Abstract expressionist period, Pollock, de Kooning, and Franz Kline clearly were the masters of designo, and Newman and Rothko were the exponents of colorito.
At least that's the way history has recorded Ab Ex output - but de Kooning, like Titian, lived a long time, and in the '80's, Titian-like, he found the golden mean between the two pillars of painting. He used saturated color as a structuring element and combined it with gesture without making mud-pies. This was in large measure owing to his discovery of white paint and slower gestures, but sometimes the most effective solutions to knotty problems turn out to be the simplest.
In the reviews of the current retrospective, the reception to the late paintings in print has been very good, and I'm glad about it - I've always felt that these were among De Kooning's strongest paintings. There was a terrific exhibition of those pictures in 1997 (the year the artist died), also at MoMA. I remember being bowled over, and also being quite surprised at the critical ambivalence the pictures received - there were lengthy, pointless debates about his mental health and whether or not the paintings could be viewed as authentic if he was not in his right mind. Who fucking cares?
There is an age-related factor that is entirely plausible in these pictures, however, and it relates more to the body and not the mind. As I mentioned above, the gesture in these paintings is palpably slower that the lightning sluices in his work from the '40's to the '60's. This approach makes sense given the artist's advanced age at this point, and if true also represents artistic ingenuity at its best - great artists have always found a way around extra-aesthetic limitations, whether they be financial, political, or if you're just too damned old to swing a paintbrush like a sword any more.
The show stays up until Jan. 9 - this Monday. If you haven't seen it yet, you have about 48 hours so try and get over there. And spend some time in that last room - de Kooning, like Titian, ended his career on a really high note, which is something we can all only hope for.