Willem de Kooning

Dutch-American Draftsman, Painter, and Sculptor

Movement: Abstract Expressionism

Born: April 24, 1904 - Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Died: March 19, 1997 - East Hampton, New York

Important Art by Willem de Kooning

The below artworks are the most important by Willem de Kooning - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Artwork Images

Seated Woman (1940)

Artwork description & Analysis: Seated Woman was de Kooning's first major painting of a woman, and it evolved, curiously, out of a commission for a slightly earlier picture, Portrait of a Woman (c.1940). The artist seems to have held on to the commissioned portrait and started to use it to develop new pictures. The earlier work was shaped in part by contemporary images of women in magazines and by de Kooning's wife Elaine who had even stood in as a model when the portrait's subject was not available.These factors surely encouraged de Kooning to see the possibilities of using a 'portrait' to represent womankind in general, rather than a specific individual. Seated Woman was also undoubtedly influenced by Arshile Gorky, in particular the figurative The Artist and his Mother, which Gorky worked on for almost fifteen years after 1926.

Oil and charcoal on masonite - The Philadelphia Museum of Art

Artwork Images

Pink Angels (1945)

Artwork description & Analysis: Pink Angels marked an important stage in de Kooning's evolution from figuration towards abstraction in the 1940s. The fleshy pink biomorphs of his earlier work - shapes that evoke eyes and other anatomical forms - are violently torn apart in a painting that was reportedly inspired by the carnage of World War II, and the figurative elements are barely distinguishable from the mustard yellow background. This thorough blurring of figure and ground was an important step in de Kooning's development towards the black and white paintings of the later part of the decade.

Oil and charcoal on canvas - Frederick R. Weisman Foundation, Los Angeles

Artwork Images

Attic (1949)

Artwork description & Analysis: In 1947, de Kooning embarked on a series of black and white abstractions. Attic is one of the best known among these, having been widely exhibited in the years after its completion. "Everything that passes me I can see only a little of," the artist once said, "but I am always looking. And I see an awful lot sometimes." He might well have said this of Attic, as it seems to combine fragments of figures and backgrounds in a highly abstract and dynamic whirl. Although de Kooning is said to have been prompted to begin the series through lack of funds(he found a cheap supply of black commercial enamel), many artists in this period were experimenting with black and white. To a greater or lesser degree Motherwell, Kline,Baziotes, Gottlieb and Hofmann all worked in the restricted palette, and Picasso's Guernica, which was exhibited in New York in 1939, provided them with an illustrious model.

Oil, enamel, and newspaper transfer on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Artwork Images

Excavation (1950)

Artwork description & Analysis: Excavation marked the culmination of de Kooning's abstract phase of the 1940s. Like Attic, it is concerned with the relationship of figure to ground, and the jagged edges of the biomorphic forms collide forcefully within the space of the composition.However, unlike Attic, it employs a range of primary colors as highlights. This classic example of action painting was among the last works completed before de Kooning returned to color and the figure with full enthusiasm in his Women series.

Oil on canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago

Artwork Images

Woman I (1950-52)

Artwork description & Analysis: Woman I is perhaps de Kooning's most famous painting. The process of its creation was described by Thomas B. Hess in his article "Willem de Kooning Paints a Picture," and the Museum of Modern Art in New York purchased it upon its first exhibition. De Kooning worked on the picture for two years, revising it constantly, and aggressively - his dealer noted that his canvases often had holes punched through from the violence of his brush strokes.

He applied newspaper to the surface to keep paint workable for long periods, and when he peeled it off, the imprint often remained, leaving further evidence of his process. Although de Kooning never conceived the pictures as collages, he employed the technique as a springboard to begin many of the pictures in the Women series,pasting magazine images of women's smiles in the position of the mouth, though this element rarely survived in the finished product. This use of popular media as inspiration is in some measure a precursor of Pop art, which developed as a reaction against Abstract Expressionism.

Woman I is noteworthy not only for this process, but also because it embodies two major themes in de Kooning's work. The first is the depiction of the female figure. The woman depicted in Woman I is wholly unlike anything seen in Western painting - she is highly aggressive, erotic and threatening. Her frightening teeth and fierce eyes are not those of a stereotypically submissive, Cold war-era housewife, and de Kooning created her in part as a response to the idealized women in art history, such as Ingres' Odalisque (1814).

Secondly, the work is an important step in de Kooning's lifelong exploration of the relationship between figure and ground. He causes the woman's form to blend into the abstract background by using brushstrokes that draw the ground and figure together. He also used similar pigments(whites, and fleshy pinks) for both the upper body and the space surrounding it; hence the woman dissolves into the background, the setting of which, typically, is indiscernible - a space de Kooning described as a "no-environment."

Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Artwork Images

July 4th (1957)

Artwork description & Analysis: In the late 1950s de Kooning temporarily left aside his preoccupation with women, and began to explore landscape,although there often seem to be few direct references to landscape in these paintings. These works from the late 1950s and early 1960s were made during the period in which de Kooning and Franz Kline shared a relationship of mutual influence, and the structure underlying July 4th is certainly reminiscent of Kline. Notably, Kline, who had long painted in only black and white, began using color in this period.

Oil on paper - National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Artwork Images

Women Singing II (1967)

Artwork description & Analysis: This work is typical of de Kooning's style upon returning to the figure, which he began to do with a new series of paintings of women, shortly after moving permanently to Long Island. Like his earlier Women series, these are highly abstract,but they are less ferocious, and more obviously eroticized,with bright red lips and long blond hair that border on caricature. They were inspired by watching television and observing the new fashions and pop idols of the 1960s.

Oil on paper laid on canvas - Tate Modern, London UK

Artwork Images

Untitled VII (1985)

Artwork description & Analysis: In this late painting from 1985, de Kooning greatly simplified his brushstrokes and colors. Unlike his previous works, which were characterized by very busy surfaces, this apparently employs a sparse number of brushstrokes which are highlighted by the abundance of white surrounding them. He also turned away from rich impasto and returned to the flat,sanded surfaces of some his figurative pictures from the 1940s. These pictures were greeted as confirmation of the painter's continued powers, and yet as the decade wore on it became clear that de Kooning's mental capacities were waning,and in 1989 he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. The 1990s saw a vigorous debate about the quality of the painter's late work, critics asking whether it derived from his intellect, or from his intuition.

Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY

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Related Art and Artists

Artwork Images

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907)

Artist: Pablo Picasso

Artwork description & Analysis: This painting was shocking even to Picasso's closest artist friends both for its content and its execution. The subject matter of nude women was not in itself unusual, but the fact that Picasso painted the women as prostitutes in aggressively sexual postures was novel. Picasso's studies of Iberian and tribal art is most evident in the faces of three of the women, which are rendered as mask-like, suggesting that their sexuality is not just aggressive, but also primitive. Picasso also went further with his spatial experiments by abandoning the Renaissance illusion of three-dimensionality, instead presenting a radically flattened picture plane that is broken up into geometric shards, something Picasso borrowed in part from Paul Cezanne's brushwork. For instance, the leg of the woman on the left is painted as if seen from several points of view simultaneously; it is difficult to distinguish the leg from the negative space around it making it appear as if the two are both in the foreground.

The painting was widely thought to be immoral when it was finally exhibited in public in 1916. Braque is one of the few artists who studied it intently in 1907, leading directly to his Cubist collaborations with Picasso. Because Les Demoiselles predicted some of the characteristics of Cubism, the work is considered proto or pre Cubism.

Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Artwork Images

The Tilled Field (1923)

Artist: Joan Miró

Artwork description & Analysis: Populated with complex, often inscrutable forms, The Tilled Field, with its puzzling iconography, is an abstract depiction of the landscape of Miró's Catalan homeland. The painting, teeming with organic forms that merge and meld seemingly in defiance of nature, is a testament to Miró's ever-increasing stylization and abstraction at this point in his career. The picture may be viewed as both an homage to Spain's past and a statement on the contemporary political upheaval in Europe. In works like this one, as well as works from the period leading up to and throughout World War II, Miro frequently expressed his own political sentiments. The painting also emphasizes how extremely radical Miró's departure was from his previous, naturalist style once he arrived in Paris and was exposed to the avant-garde art of that city where innovation thrived.

Oil on canvas - Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Pier and Ocean (Composition No. 10) (1915)

Artist: Piet Mondrian

Artwork description & Analysis: Pier and Ocean marks a definitive step in Mondrian's path toward pure abstraction. Here he has eliminated diagonal and curved lines as well as color; the only true reference to nature is found within the title and the horizontal lines that allude to the horizon and the verticals that evoke the pilings of the pier. The rhythms created by the alternating lines and their varying lengths presages Mondrian's mature dynamic, depicting an asymmetrical balance as well as the pulse of the ocean waves. Reviewing this work, Theo van Doesburg wrote: "Spiritually, this work is more important than the others. It conveys the impression of peace; the stillness of the soul." Mondrian had begun to translate what he saw as the underlying ordered patterns of nature into a pure abstract language.

Oil on canvas - State Museum Kroller-Muller, Otterlo

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