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Artist's work says, "Let there be life'

When the hand of Willem de Kooning took flight in abstract painting in the 1950s, the splashy trails it left on canvas looked like skid marks of emotion turned loose in space.

De Kooning, who died Wednesday at 92, brought painting up to the speed of the mid-20th century and was one of the last painters able to personify a cultural moment _ the period of Cold War paranoia and conformity and the yearning it bred to cut loose.

With Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and a few others, de Kooning is credited with having made American painting a force in world culture.

Yet in retrospect we cannot know what his sudden acclaim owed to the ideological climate of the time or to the fact that he had come to America illegally, as a stowaway, and would not become a citizen until 1961.

In spite of his ambiguous immigration status, he almost defiantly courted notoriety. When de Kooning painted his series, Women, in his breakneck manner, he was derided for proudly acting out violence toward women. But to say that is to take de Kooning's titles and paintings too literally.

No artist with the classical training he received in his native Rotterdam confuses a painted woman with the real thing, no matter how quickly he works.

He knew that people's habit of confusing images with what they describe would guarantee the impact of his Women, regardless of their own attitudes toward women in the flesh.

Today, we can see the Women as among the first honest renditions of the female nude by a male artist, with all the excitement and ambivalence that may imply.

Yet they backhandedly restore some dignity to a pictorial subject that had long solicited only hypocrisy from artists and audiences.

It is hard to find a critic in America who does not admire de Kooning. To reject his bravura pictures of the late 1940s and early 1950s in particular is to reject modern painting altogether. Or so it seems.

In art, de Kooning was the man to beat throughout the 1950s.

When Robert Rauschenberg decided to become famous for erasing the work of another artist, he pilfered a drawing by de Kooning and erased it down to a faint veil of smudges _ with the great man's permission _ thereby turning it into a collaborative work of sorts.

Erasing de Kooning was an ironic act of homage, the sincerest way for Rauschenberg to declare that he would never draw with de Kooning's flair or conviction.

Many artists and critics with no particular debt of influence have acknowledged the uncanny power of de Kooning's work.

His great early picture Excavation (1950) was the first one to give me the sensation of understanding the painting process. I was stunned to learn that both Robert Hughes, Time magazine's art critic, and Bruce Nauman, an influential sculptor and video maker, report similar experiences of Excavation.

More tightly meshed than many of de Kooning's most famous works, Excavation gives the illusion almost of being a paper patchwork from which pieces have been cut and torn to reveal brilliant color seething underneath. This painting made real to me for the first time the process of adding and retracting, diving and resurfacing, that creative work entails.

Today, it is hard to believe that painting ever seemed to be a representative art, the art that could register the condition of culture as a whole.

The 1995 exhibition of de Kooning's late works mounted by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, traced the sad decline of de Kooning's artistic powers with the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

But the show also documented the fact that it now seems impossible for any voice to dominate the art of painting as de Kooning's did between, say, 1950 and 1977, allowing for some spells of silence and lost pitch.

We may never be able to distinguish clearly between the lucky circumstances of de Kooning's middle career and the felicities of the work itself.

Whatever revisions future historians make to the myth of de Kooning, he left scores of paintings that will be as bracing and involving a century from now as they are today. One reason they will endure is that they are so deeply rooted in European pictorial tradition, which de Kooning internalized by long study.

But the key reason is that his best paintings are proofs that desire, learning, skill and imagination can turn dead matter directly into the life form we call meaning.