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Engulfed in skies and seas

Spatter, splash, swivel, and swoop. Willem de Kooning’s “Untitled’’ is a painting I go to bed dreaming about. Full of air and light, it changes speed before your eyes. Its colors — yolky yellows and pale lemon against poached-salmon pink and a sun-kissed deep-sea blue — give it a lyricism unmatched in American art (except, of course, by other de Koonings).

This one — the finest de Kooning I know of in New England — is in the permanent collection of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. A Dutchman, de Kooning came to America as a stowaway from Rotterdam in 1926. By and by, he established himself as one of the greatest of 20th-century artists. (I rate him this country’s greatest.) “Untitled’’ was made in 1961, five years after the death of Jackson Pollock, an event which left de Kooning the undisputed big cheese of postwar American art.

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Abstract Expressionism, and particularly de Kooning’s macho brand of it, began to attract skepticism almost as soon as its progenitors hit the big time. It was a heroic style. It came swaddled in a heroic rhetoric that was ripe for ridicule. De Kooning’s blowsy, self-destructive emotional life — his binge drinking and bed hopping, pursued at full tilt in the ’60s — only inflated the target.

Half a century of methodical picking apart and parody have ensued: Every subsequent movement in American art has been, to one degree or another, in revolt against Abstract Expressionism (the movement is the subject of a major show this fall at the Museum of Modern Art).

But a target is a singular thing; de Kooning was many. An instinctive innovator, he switched seamlessly between abstraction and figuration, between color and black-and-white, between urban and pastoral subjects, and between drawing, sculpture, and painting. “Untitled’’ was completed the year he moved his studio out of New York City to Springs in the Hamptons. For all its vigor, it’s as lyrical and sweet as can be.

Anchored by its strong verticals and speeding horizontals, the painting seems to expand effortlessly beyond its borders. That smooth stretch of musky pink at top (it reappears at the bottom right) is the picture’s emotional propeller. There’s something dream-slow about it — a perfect counterpoint to the explosion of dirty yellow that splashes out in front and the swishing, oceanic blue below.

De Kooning is always showing us how color and different kinds of painterly touch can carve out space and sensations of movement. His paintings are big enough to engulf you. In front of “Untitled’’ your eyes seem to fly through skies and over seas, only to be pulled up short, then swept away again, skidding and flapping on skin-buffeting thermals. Not bad for a few splashy brush strokes.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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