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Modern Art's Father Figure

Revealing gallery show traces de Kooning's evolution as a giant of Abstract Expressionism. ART: REVIEW

IN some ways, Willem de Kooning is the ``Big Daddy'' of American art. He has been around longer, has exerted a greater influence, and has survived more attempts to ``dethrone'' him than any other living American painter. More important, he has produced at least a dozen of the most powerful and important paintings of the mid-20th century. Whether one likes and respects his work or not - and he probably has almost as many detractors as admirers - no one can deny that he's left an indelible stamp on American art.

A de Kooning exhibition is an ideal way to start a new art season, and Salander-O'Reilly Galleries here has mounted an excellent one. It is small but wide-ranging in its selections, with paintings and works on paper dating from 1940 to 1984. It opens with a figurative oil, ``Glazier,'' and ends with two of his most recent, highly simplified, and controversial abstract canvases. Almost every aspect of his work is represented by at least one example. Most are of high quality and all are of art-historical interest. In short, anyone desiring a compact overview of de Kooning's stylistic evolution, quality as a draftsman-painter, and importance as a leading Abstract Expressionist, would do well to visit this show.

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Several major museums and private collections, including the Metropolitan, Guggenheim, and Hirshhorn museums, lent their treasures to this exhibition. The Museum of Modern Art sent its ``Woman II,'' a 1952 oil, and ``Seated Woman,'' one of de Kooning's most successful studies in pastel and pencil. And we have the Rose Art Museum of Brandeis University to thank for entrusting the gallery with its 1961 ``Untitled,'' certainly one of the two or three most important paintings in the show.

I've mentioned these museums for two reasons: To suggest the level of quality on view here, and to indicate how highly regarded de Kooning has been by museum directors over the years.

Museum officials are not unique in their respect for him, however. His fellow painters also hold him in high esteem, and have ever since his early days in New York in the '30s and early '40s. Like most of the original Abstract Expressionists, his career developed slowly. He was 22 when he arrived in New York from Rotterdam in 1926, and a little over 40 when his career began to take hold. From then on, however, things moved rapidly. By 1948 he was nationally known, and by 1950 an international celebrity.

Fame temporarily became notoriety in the very early '50s when he shocked the art world with the first of his ``Woman'' paintings, a series of impassioned, highly ambiguous, single-figure studies of women that combined expressionistic intensity and violence with wild, painterly exuberance.

No matter how shocked it might have been at first, however, by this violation of the near-sanctity of abstraction, the art world was soon paying serious attention to these dramatically distorted depictions of women. Indeed, it did more than that, for by 1954 a considerable portion of the art world had decided that de Kooning, even more than Jackson Pollock, was at the ``cutting edge'' of world art.

For many art professionals, that opinion still holds. In fact, were a poll to be taken today, it's my guess that a large number of critics and curators would rate de Kooning as the most significant painter of the '50s and his ``Woman'' series as the highwater mark of Abstract Expressionist art.

Dissenting critics, on the other hand, might well prefer the abstract canvases that once again dominated his production from the late '50s on, most particularly such paintings as the Guggenheim Museum's 1955 ``Composition'' (on view here), and the ``Untitled'' of 1961.

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Except for brief flashes of his old power here and there - notably in his 1965 oil on paper ``Woman'' and his sparkling ``Untitled'' of 1975 - the '60s mark the beginning of what I can only describe as his long downhill slide into banality. The '70s saw his work become increasingly flaccid in form and ice-cream sweet in color, and the '80s saw it deteriorate into mindless, stylized doodlings. The two large canvases dated 1984 in the show are neither better nor worse than the dozen or so I've seen that were executed shortly before or after that date. It doesn't matter if they were painted by a child of 12 or a world famous artist of 80, they're simply too trivial to be taken seriously as art.

I feel very strongly about this. It's one thing to honor de Kooning for his genuine accomplishments. He deserves it. It's quite another to demean him - as some observers tend to do - by failing to distinguish between what really is special about his work and what is empty - or just plain bad.

At the Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, 20 East 79th Street, through Oct. 15.

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