That was in the mid-fifties, as de Kooning was being pretty nearly written off, assumed to be regressive by an art world that was pronouncing painting dead. At MoMA, we see him continuing at the same accelerated growth rate as before, circling back, striking out, destroying work, starting over, always pushing himself. After the Women, there’s work here from the late fifties, paintings that I too had always written off as murky. Now I see that de Kooning kept painting the women—just leaving the women out. In paintings like Easter Monday, Merritt Parkway, Bolton Landing, and Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point, made between 1955 and 1963, he takes his vision into the sunlight, enlarging his scale and brushstrokes, going with less drawing, letting more light into spaces he’d always depicted. I was stunned here. As I was with those luscious so-called abstractions from the seventies, paintings I have loved unabashedly, despite their bad rap, for decades. Even here, in these profuse oceanic fields that resonate with Turner-like amorphousness and luminous energy, are boneless body parts, hints of reclining figures, the windows and doorways of the earlier work, wet-on-wet sensuousness. You look at these teeming paintings and know that they’re made out of the same thing we’re made out of. As de Kooning put it, “Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented.”
In the final gallery comes the wintry incandescence of the last works, and they take my breath away. Exquisitely lyrical looping locutions, lone lines of coral-reef color, umbilical curves: They curl and cut back in viscous fields of mysterious expanding space. The widows and chairs of the first paintings are here. As is the space, so hard won. In this gallery is his last rite of visual passage, the perfectly titled The Cat’s Meow—centrifugal harmonies in pastel that let you see the order and ecstasy in chaos, and the chaos in order and ecstasy. (Some of the paintings from this period are tainted by whispers: that de Kooning was being heavily aided by his assistants, that his developing dementia was robbing him of intellect. I see an artist fully in control.)
Everything on hand makes it impossible to think that by 1959 de Kooning was repeating himself, betraying causes, making cotton-candy abstractions, turning out second-rate sculpture, or running on painterly fumes. It should also make all those curators who consider painting moribund and regressive, rarely including it in their shows, see the idiocy of their ways. I challenge any of them to name one thing wrong with any work on view here. What we see, from beginning to end, is a cosmos unto itself, visual wisdom for the ages.