I made my second visit to the Willem de Kooning retrospective because the exhibition closes in a few days and I had not yet written about it. The gushing reviews by critics like Barry Schwabsky in The Nation and Howard Halle in TONY seemed to capture my general feeling. However I don't agree that there wasn't a bad painting in the show. There were quite a few crummy ones, particularly from the 50s throughout the late 70s.
The early works are stunning in their utter virtuosity with both drawing and painting. From the portraits to the pink angels of the early 40s to the black and white paintings to the titanic achievements of Attic and Excavation in 1950 it was a singular march towards greatness. Then came the Women. The Women suck. They are gimmicky and dumb. It was a bad lapse. I now have to say once again that Greenberg was correct. The abstract paintings that immediately followed in '53-'55 (using the same palette as the Women) were very good--Gotham News and Interchange among them. But then decades of mediocrity follow. The big brash abstract paintings like Merrit Parkway don't hold up. Few of these do except for 1960's Door to the River. I know this will be heretical to some, but second generation de Kooning acolytes like Michael Goldberg and Al Leslie were arguably making better paintings than Bill at this point.
The 1960s were not a good decade for de Kooning witness the Sag Harbor stuff. It's only in the late 70s that his paintings appear to become more focused and not so forced. And then seemingly out of nowhere in the 1980s we get the astonishing late paintings. These are his greatest works and among the greatest paintings in Modern Art. The effortless flow of line, the white light that animates the entire surface, the lack of clutter and abex bravado (the letting go of a certain weightiness). These are timeless works. They are familiar yet look like nothing that had come before.