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Old Age Question

Did Willem de Kooning's deteriorating mental health adversely affect his later works?

According to a description of Alzheimer's from Principles of Neural Science, "patients show abnormalities of memory, problem solving, language, calculation, visuospatial perception, judgement and behavior." When you think about it, highly regarded work has been made by artists who were mentally, physically and chemically incapacitated. Van Gogh was mentally ill; Monet painted while suffering from cataracts; Pollock was a tremendous drunk; Basquiat was a heroin addict. The work should be judged on its merits, and you shouldn't have to pass a urine test or a psychiatric exam before your work can be considered.

But knowledge of de Kooning's decline does color a viewing of the work. An untitled (1980) scrawled ink drawing of two women led to three 1987 paintings. Comparing the 1980 drawing to a 1966 drawing, the former looks much looser, and even the signature is less emphatic. Is this the result of infirmity or a 24-year difference in drawing style? But more important, the paintings that result from the drawing are not especially satisfying. They feel awkward. The images seem plopped down and filled in, not created on the canvas.

A more successful series of untitled paintings from 1985 cannibalize themselves for composition, each one taking a part of the one before. There is a clarity of color here, bright shimmering tones of blue and reddish-orange lines curving over white surfaces that radiate with obscured color. They look like a curvilinear version of Mondrian. There is something kind of appealing about the bright, looping strokes and the thin, controlled paint. I just don't know that "kind of appealing" is enough. I think you're probably willing to accord them more attention in the context of de Kooning's work than they would merit as lone paintings.

De Kooning will always remain a seminal figure in the development of American art. Throughout his career he took risks, and his painting was never static. The physical and visual interaction with paint was the issue for him, not the end result. The later work shown in the exhibition raises many questions, but in the words of an artist who saw the show, "Well, at least de Kooning senile is a helluva lot better than Sam Francis lucid."

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