Enough About the Late Work-Here Is de Kooning’s Real Legacy

The ease with which the late paintings of Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) have been accepted as masterpieces of late 20th-century art constitutes one of the great embarrassments of the contemporary scene. Commonly referred to as “the Alzheimer’s paintings,” the pictures have received the most extravagant of accolades. Critics, curators, artists and collectors have hailed them not only as the apotheosis of one master’s oeuvre , but as the fitting capstone to Abstract Expressionism. The late paintings have also garnered de Kooning comparisons to luminaries like Titian, Rembrandt, Cézanne and Matisse.

That we’re not certain of how cognizant de Kooning was when painting the pictures, or how much they were “assisted” by others, are questions that don’t much faze those showering them with plaudits. Neither does the question of how good the paintings actually are. Opinions differ, of course, and artists whose opinions I esteem wax enthusiastic about them. I’ll go so far as to admit that there is a there there to some of the pictures.

Yet the late paintings exist, to the extent that they exist at all, as pictorial wisps–oblivious apings of classic de Kooning circa 1948. So how did things as sad and as sluggish and as pasty as these come to be taken seriously by folks who should know better? Was it through some need for artistic heroes? Sure–we can always use some of those. But let’s not forget the marketplace and the hype–often farcical, sometimes dangerous–it can generate. If one is still queasy about the convenient abandonment of artistic quality, not to worry: Our tastemakers have got that covered. A few months back, in a review of an exhibition devoted to the last body of work attributed to de Kooning, The New York Times , after noting the very real doubts about the pictures, declared: “They’re here, they’re clear, get used to them.”

Well, some of us are used to them, but that doesn’t mean we’re happy about it. One wonders, in fact, how arduously the late-de Kooning crowd would have to work at keeping a straight face when seeing a picture from the artist’s dotage contrasted with a picture from his prime–like, say, any single piece featured in The Artist’s Hand: Willem de Kooning Drawings, 1937-1954 , a superb exhibition currently on display at Mitchell-Innes & Nash. At the risk of harping on the issue, the difference between the early drawings and the final paintings is devastating.

The Artist’s Hand begins in 1937 with a drawing that collapses every significant tendency of early Modernist art into one unnerving and clinical whole. The show culminates with a group of drawings from the early to mid-50′s depicting what is probably de Kooning’s best-known motif: the woman. In between there are curiosities (a study of hair styles with future wife Elaine as model); homages (to Picasso, Miró and Ingres); straightforward studies from life (a self-portrait); witty studies from life (a portrait of the critic Harold Rosenberg); and a reverie that is drenched in pathos and not a little creepy ( Self-Portrait with Imaginary Brother , circa 1938).

The life inherent in these drawings is inseparable from the vigor of de Kooning’s line. One would think that this pictorial wonder had been exhaustively acclaimed. Yet there can be no exhausting it. De Kooning’s line is dizzyingly multifaceted. It can move with the greatest delicacy, forever uncertain of its ultimate destination. It can also veer with a wild abandon–an abandon that doesn’t preclude delineating each nuance in its path. There’s a stingy tenor to de Kooning’s drawings, an unwillingness to capsize the ideal. But there’s alsos a witty flexibility to the work, a rare delight taken in approximation and metaphor. For de Kooning, putting pencil to paper was always a kind of tug of war. No wonder the drawings are so exciting. No wonder there are so few of them.

A pair of hazy greenish-yellow paintings on paper from the mid-1940′s recall the de Kooning of Attic (1949) and Excavation (1950)–surely two of the greatest pictures to be painted on these shores. Yet the most compelling work at Mitchell-Innes & Nash is an untitled pencil drawing from 1942, an edgy array of shifting rectangles punctuated by a lone Surrealist bubble. The piece is classic de Kooning in its precision and elasticity. It is not so classic–or, one should say, less familiar–in its idiosyncrasy. Anyone familiar with the clunky pastiches that were the early American response to European abstraction will chuckle over how seamlessly de Kooning melds the geometric and the biomorphic. But the drawing is more than a comedy of styles: It’s a narrative–about indiscretions, overheard conversations and the complications inherent in illicit pursuits. (Never have I seen rectangles as guilt-ridden as these.) One can’t help but notice the distended eroticism pervading the image or the obligatory appearance–obligatory for de Kooning, anyway–of the female breast. It is, in many ways, an incredibly obvious drawing. It’s also a little nutty. If de Kooning’s drawing doesn’t count as a masterpiece, then it’s something damned near close to it.

The Artist’s Hand is a spare and elegant exhibition, one that keeps our eye tuned and elated. The show does falter, however, when it arrives at de Kooning’s drawings of women. However indelible these images may be as historical icons, they signal the beginning of the artist’s long decline. With their brute erasures and just as brutish distortions, the pictures signal an artist who had come to view art less as a challenge and a calling than as an obsession and a chore.

Still, there are startling morsels to be gleaned from them. My favorite is the three women seen at the bottom of a drawing dating from between 1950 and 1954. Combining the otherworldly formality of Egyptian reliquaries with the kinky shadings of the female automaton featured in the seminal science-fiction film Metropolis , this weird, almost off-putting nugget memorably encapsulates de Kooning’s dual drives: classicism and sex. This supercharged combo was his gift, and it is his legacy. Here is an invaluable opportunity to reacquaint oneself with both. The Artist’s Hand: Willem de Kooning Drawings, 1937-1954 is at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, 1018 Madison Avenue, until March 2.