Had just enough time in New York City last Saturday on my way to New Jersey--true--to stop by the Museum of Modern Art to take in the massive Willem DeKooning show. If you bothered to know about art in the last half of the 20th century, you definitely heard about DeKooning. But until I saw this retrospective--the man lived from 1904 to 1997, and was seriously working from around 1940 until 1990--I merely had seen a few of his most famous canvases or pictures of them, such as one of the 'Woman' series of paintings.
It seems to me that he was both lucky and good. The major works--the several series of 'Woman' pictures and a few others--stand the test of time. They are still fascinating. The luck part is that there were major critics who appreciated his style; in addition, the charges of misogyny, largely emanating from those same 'Woman' pictures, since they are mightily unflattering, on the surface at least, arose at a time when charges like that didn't carry the weight they seem to today.
He also had no fear about changing his style, sometimes abruptly. He learned from different sources--some of his work drew on exposure to Japanese art and in his late years, he lurched toward minimalism with his canvases left largely white or painted white, with a few lines drawn on them. It's also helpful to his image that he painted a large backdrop for a friend's ballet production, based on one of his best works, and then got only the $50 from her which was all she could afford to pay him for the backdrop.
We often think about him as exemplifying the so-called "New York school" of abstract expressionism, whatever that may be. This show allows us to see him as an individual painter, moving quite bravely from style to style until he found one or more within which he felt comfortable. Yes, there are some of his paintings that are nearly totally abstract but many more that are not. So, for better or worse, he's not in the same place as Jackson Pollock, who is fascinating in his own, quite different way.
It happened that DeKooning had several solo shows at private New York galleries in the 1950s mainly, and they were wildly successful. It makes all the sense in the world that the Museum of Modern Art has mounted this great show that presents his whole career, which ran for a good 40-plus years. He did move out of the city to the East End of Long Island--much as Pollock did--but fortunately for him and for us, he did not get run down on a highway before he could show us how many different artistic lives he would have.