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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Willem de Kooning was one of the leading painters in the abstract expressionist movement. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz thinks de Kooning is one of the greatest 20th century painters of any kind. Here's Lloyd's review of the first major de Kooning retrospective, which is now on view at the Museum of Modern Art.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: Last year the Museum of Modern Art was criticized for its skimpy representation of the Dutch-American painter Willem de Kooning in its huge abstract expressionist show. They've now made up for it with an astounding de Kooning retrospective, the first of its kind: some 200 paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures that trace de Kooning's career from the time he was 12, when he was working for a graphic designer in his native Rotterdam and painting remarkable imitations of Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Miro, Gorky, and other major 20th century figures. Even as a teenager, he was obviously in love with painting, and with paint. There's probably no 20th century artist other than his contemporary abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock who treated paint more voluptuously, and maybe none who worked harder to get paint to come alive on a canvas.

Although you might not be aware of it at first, de Kooning's abstractions, unlike, say, Pollock's or Mark Rothko's, are almost always based on figures or objects or places. Several years after his first big New York success in the late 1940s with a dazzling series of black and white abstractions painted with enamel, he returned to one of his favorite subjects - women - and was attacked for abandoning abstraction.

To which he responded: After a while all kinds of painting becomes just painting for you - abstract or otherwise. Being anti-traditional, he told his critics, is just as corny as being traditional. His third series of paintings of women, from the early '50s, beginning with "Woman I," maybe his most famous canvas, and in the Museum of Modern Art's own collection, is one of the highlights of this retrospective.

These women are ferocious, with their huge breasts and huge teeth. De Kooning was obsessed with mouths, and said that mouths gave his paintings their necessary focal point. In the show, there's a small painting in which the woman's mouth is actually cut out from a magazine ad and pasted on the canvas.

When you step back, these figures of women seem almost monsters, but close up, the smears and drips and the intensity of the colors are so delicious you want to swim in them, wallow in them, eat them. In the very next room from the women you're surrounded by paintings that de Kooning referred to as city or highway landscapes. There's the crowded, colorful "Gotham News", which, like many of the paintings of this period, incorporate impressions from actual newspaper ads and articles.

Or "Merritt Parkway", one of his magnificent large-scale abstractions that fill a canvas with what he called full arm sweeps that splash wide bands of paint across the canvas. They're as painterly as the women figures but leave more - leave everything - to the imagination: total abstractions, wildly evocative, sumptuous and gorgeous.

One of the most important things one learns from this show is that de Kooning was never sloppy or self-satisfied. He worked weeks and months, even years, on some of these paintings, yet they almost always have the appearance of exhilarating spontaneity. Another marvelous benefit is that not only can you trace the development of a whole career; you can also see the little alleyways and detours that occur along the way - even dead ends.

Along with important landmark paintings like "Pink Angels" and "Excavation," I love de Kooning's touching and funny little self-portrait, something he never really developed into a persistent subject. And the extraordinary 17-foot-square stage backdrop that he enlarged in 1946 from a little painting called "Judgment Day" for a dance piece called "Labyrinth." He got $50 for doing it.

De Kooning's most controversial paintings are his very last ones. His health was failing. He'd been drinking heavily, and then dementia began to set in. These late paintings are suddenly simple - often just ribbons of color, parts of which were painted by his assistants.

The rich density of his greatest work is gone. Yet some of these, like a six-by-seven-foot canvas from 1985, a dozen years before he died, with just blue and black lines floating over a white background, are extremely beautiful - images reduced to something profoundly, radically basic. Even his poetic titles are gone. In their poignant way, these paintings may be just the right ending to the career of an artist who seems to have tried just about everything else.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and teaches in the creative writing MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed the Willem de Kooning retrospective which is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through January 9th. You can see a couple of the paintings he talked about on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

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