Portrait of Decline

Willem de Kooning at the MoMA.

Ariella Budick

Willem de Kooning's 1952-53 painting "Woman V."Willem de Kooning’s 1952-53 painting "Woman V"

The Museum of Modern Art’s generous, even prodigal De Kooning retrospective is the most ambitious show New York has seen in a long time – a lavish, knotty and definitive tribute to a tricky and alloyed genius. Not everything here is excellent and some isn’t any good at all but the exhibition traverses the crests and gullies of his career with passionate thoroughness. It emboldens De Kooning’s champions and fends off his attackers, who have been many and virulent. But what I came away with was the sense that both sides are right. De Kooning, who died in 1997 aged 92, was one of the most brilliant painters America has seen but he fell short of his ambition. The Dutch-born artist gulped down Picasso’s influence early and eagerly, then spent the rest of his life trying to expunge his debt to a rival he could never match, either in skill or imagination. And once he had reached the peak of his powers in middle age, his talent simply collapsed.

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