Books: The Gorgeous Wreck

A superb biography looks at the exalted art and difficult life of the painter Willem de Kooning

Willen De Kooning or Jackson Pollock--in postwar American art, those were the heavyweight contenders. Pollock's drip paintings took art to a place beyond the brushstroke. The prestidigitations of de Kooning's brush summoned it back again. Even the powerful critic Clement Greenberg, who would turn against de Kooning for his failure to renounce figure painting, had to admit the guy's appeal. "De Kooning really took a whole generation with him," Greenberg once wrote. "Like the flute player of the fairy tale."

In De Kooning: An American Master (Knopf; 732 pages), you get a full sense of de Kooning's quiet charm and his...