The Museum of Modern Art's generous, even prodigal De Kooning retrospective is the most ambitious show New York has seen in a long time – a lavish, knotty and definitive tribute to a tricky and alloyed genius. Not everything here is excellent and some isn't any good at all but the exhibition traverses the crests and gullies of his career with passionate thoroughness. It emboldens De Kooning's champions and fends off his attackers, who have been many and virulent. But what I came away with was the sense that both sides are right. De Kooning, who died in 1997 aged 92, was one of the most brilliant painters America has seen but he fell short of his ambition. The Dutch-born artist gulped down Picasso's influence early and eagerly, then spent the rest of his life trying to expunge his debt to a rival he could never match, either in skill or imagination. And once he had reached the peak of his powers in middle age, his talent simply collapsed.
De Kooning internalised the most liberating of Picasso's rules: the mandate constantly to experiment and evolve. That mutability irritated his acolytes and fuelled disputes. Already in the 1950s, Clement Greenberg, the ruthless Lenin of modernism, wrote De Kooning off as an apostate who, with his balefully smirking women, had abandoned the hallowed cause of abstraction. Some critics denounced the kitschy 1960s nudes and everything that followed. Others praised the flaccid landscapes of his next phase, and even works produced in the throes of dementia, as the latter-day flowerings of an undimmed talent. The show's curator John Elderfield argues, forcefully but implausibly, that each decade in De Kooning's long career produced fresh surges of brilliance.
There was one constant in De Kooning's artistic life, though: practically every one of his paintings finds a corresponding echo in Picasso's oeuvre. In the 1930s he fiddled with the Spaniard's "Studio" (1927), a not terribly productive duet. His portraits of the 1940s respond to Picasso's figurative works of the Rose Period. The black-and-white abstractions – with which De Kooning achieved his first major success – contain the same tonal rhythms and the same obsession with death that permeate the master's "Guernica". Encoded in the fluid skeins of "Attic" (1949), for example, are at least seven fragmentary Picassoid heads, along with a large skull in the upper left corner.
Like his hero, De Kooning struggled to balance his needs for order and emotion, for empathy and loathing, for gentleness and rage. His lust for the voluptuous female body battled his desire to hack it to pieces.
This show explodes the myth that De Kooning retrenched after his critically successful forays into bulging geometries. Like Picasso, he never left the body behind. Grimacing mouths and tumescent female tissue intrude into almost every canvas he ever made. Even at his most abstract he flirted, squabbled, wheedled and skirmished with representation. His early masterpiece "Excavation" (1950) heaves with the stray body parts that make up its cubist grid. Knees, shoulders, elbows, buttocks and teeth collide with one another, fleetingly unbarring a glimpse into deeper space before they slide closed again.
You could see De Kooning's lifelong wrestling match with Picasso as part of a doomed attempt to purge himself of parents both symbolic and real. "I think a lot of creative people never grow up," he wrote, and there's certainly something stunted about his emotional and creative ties. He buried his mother again and again under layers of oily, oozing paint but she kept clawing her way to the surface of each canvas. With equal vehemence, he fought and followed the infuriatingly fecund patriarch of 20th-century art.
In 1948, De Kooning went horn to horn with Picasso in "Three Women", which mimicked and exaggerated three prostitutes from the "Demoiselles d'Avignon". If Picasso's squatting, taunting figures were crude, De Kooning's were cruder. Picasso's peach-skinned women metamorphosed into beasts with pale, rotting flesh, bared fangs, and rubbery limbs.
De Kooning performed the same grim transformations on his own work. The rightmost figure in "Three Women", the one with fuchsia war paint and large vacant eyes, became the creepy heroine of "Woman I" (1951), glaring at the viewer with unrestrained sexual menace. The same hag reappears, somewhat mollified, in "Woman and Bicycle", with two mouths grinning above her bubblegum-hued cleavage. "I find I can paint pretty young girls," De Kooning remarked, "yet when it's finished I always find they are not there, only their mothers."
That tatty harem unleashed a lot of bile. When he first saw the "Women" series in 1953, a drunken Jackson Pollock wailed: "Bill, you betrayed it. You're doing the figure. You're still doing the same goddamned thing." Soon, cries of treason were drowned out by allegations of misogyny. That charge has proved more durable, and critics have continued to perceive "Woman I" as sadomasochistic drama. But all the ideological tempests seemed beside the point as I stood, dazzled, spooked and utterly bewitched by the weird sisterhood of all six "Women" reunited at MoMA. This is an artist at his vulgar and virtuosic best.