He has been called the painter who invented a new artistic language. But Willem de Kooning, the subject of a new exhibition at the Tate, was less certain. "That's what fascinates me," he said, "to make something I can never be sure of and no one else can be either..." When de Kooning jumped ship to the USA in 1926 he brought with him the roots of lyrical abstraction. Quickly making his name in New York, he went on to cross the boundaries of art, from existentialist portraiture to exuberant non- figurative mark-making. Equipped with an academic education from his native Holland, de Kooning had absorbed all that European Modernism had to teach. In his series of "Women", he succeeded in combining this with the Dutch tradition of fleshly painting. In these increasingly obliterated female forms, he tempers his expressionistic rendering of a Rubensian heroine with the savage surrealism of an American sex goddess. "Flesh," he declared, "is the reason that paint was invented." De Kooning's later works have been criticised as "bland" and even "self-parodying", but there is no denying the mythic qualities that draw in even the passing viewer. The question here is not so much whether the artist managed to fulfil his early promise, as whether he merits the status of an internationally "great" artist. With these 76 paintings, you'll never have a better chance to decide.
Tate Gallery, Millbank (071-887 8000); 16 Feb-7 MayReuse content