Willem de Kooning Life and Art Periods

"I'm not interested in 'abstracting' or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line, and color. I paint this way because I can keep putting more things in it – drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space. Through your eyes it again becomes an emotion or idea."

SYNOPSIS

After Jackson Pollock, de Kooning was the most prominent and celebrated of the Abstract Expressionist painters. His pictures typify the vigorous gestural style of the movement and he, perhaps, did more than any of his contemporaries to develop a radically abstract style of painting that fused Cubism, Surrealism and Expressionism. Although he established his reputation with a series of entirely abstract pictures, he felt a strong pull towards traditional subjects and would eventually become most famous for his pictures of women, which he painted in spells throughout his life. Later he turned to landscapes, which were also highly acclaimed, and which he continued to paint even into his eighties, when his mind was significantly impaired by Alzheimer's disease.

KEY IDEAS

De Kooning strongly opposed the restrictions imposed by naming movements and, while generally considered to be an Abstract Expressionist, he never fully abandoned the depiction of the human figure. His paintings of women feature a unique blend of gestural abstraction and figuration. Heavily influenced by the Cubism of Picasso, de Kooning became a master at ambiguously blending figure and ground in his pictures while dismembering, re-assembling and distorting his figures in the process.
Although known for continually reworking his canvases, de Kooning often left them with a sense of dynamic incompletion, as if the forms were still in the process of moving and settling and coming into definition. In this sense his paintings exemplify 'action painting' - they are like records of a violent encounter, rather than finished works in the old Beaux Arts tradition of fine painting.
Although he came to embody the popular image of the macho, hard-drinking artist - and his most famous Women series seems painted with angry vigor - de Kooning approached his art with careful thought and was considered one of the most knowledgeable among the artists associated with the New York School. He is thought to possessed the greatest facility and polished techniques of painters in the New York School, one that compares to that of Old Masters, and he looked to the likes of Ingres, Rubens and Rembrandt for inspiration.
comment to editor

WILLEM DE KOONING BIOGRAPHY

Childhood / Early Training

Born in Rotterdam in the Netherlands in 1904, Willem de Kooning was raised mostly by his mother, who owned a bar, after his parents divorced when he was three. He found his vocation early and left school when he was twelve to apprentice at a commercial design and decorating firm. He also studied at Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques. During this period, he became interested in Jugendstil, the German variant of Art Nouveau, and its organic forms were significant in shaping his early style. However, he was soon distracted by the ascendant Dutch movement De Stijl, becoming particularly interested in its emphasis on purity of color and form, and its conception of the artist as a master craftsman.

After living for a year in Belgium in 1924, de Kooning returned to Rotterdam before travelling as a stowaway to the United States, arriving in Virginia in August 1926. He worked his way to Boston on a coal ship, then worked as a house painter in Hoboken, New Jersey before moving across the Hudson to Manhattan. There he took jobs in commercial art, designed window displays and produced fashion advertisements, work which would consume him for several years. De Kooning was still unable to devote himself to the art he loved, but he found the community of artists in New York too valuable to leave behind; when offered a salaried job in Philadelphia, he remarked that he would rather be poor in New York than rich in Philadelphia.

Willem de Kooning Biography

Several artists proved important for his development in those early years. He valued the example of Stuart Davis' urbane modernism, as well as John Graham's ideas, but Arshile Gorky was to be the biggest stylistic influence on de Kooning - "I met a lot of artists," he once said, "but then I met Gorky." Gorky had spent years working through Picasso's Cubism and then Miró's Surrealism before reaching his own mature style, and in subsequent years, de Kooning would follow a similar path: he was impressed by two major exhibitions he saw at MoMA in 1936, "Cubism and Abstract Art" and "Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism," and he was powerfully influenced by a Picasso retrospective that was staged at the same museum in 1939.

De Kooning worked on projects for the WPA mural division from 1935-37, and for the first time he was able to focus entirely on fine art instead of commercial painting. His network expanded to include Harold Rosenberg, the art critic who later heralded him as a leader of action painting. And in 1936 he was included in the show New Horizons in American Art at MoMA. Men were often the subjects of his pictures in this period, and although they are often traditionally posed, the bodies of figures such as The Glazier (c.1940) were radically distorted and the planes flattened. De Kooning often struggled with certain details in his portraits - hair, hands and shoulders - and this encouraged a habit of scraping back and reworking areas of his pictures, which left them with the appearance of being unfinished. He also painted highly abstract pictures during this time, and these, such as The Wave (c.1942-44), are characterized by flat, biomorphic forms similar to those which had first attracted the young artist to Jugendstil.

Willem de Kooning Photo

In 1938, de Kooning took on Elaine Fried as an apprentice; she became his wife in 1943, and in time she would become a prominent Abstract Expressionist in her own right. The two shared a tempestuous, alcohol-fueled relationship, one which was not aided by extramarital affairs on both sides. Following their separation at the end of the 1950s, de Kooning had a child with another woman, and even had an affair with Ruth Kligman, the former lover of Jackson Pollock who had survived the car crash that killed him. However, Elaine and Willem reunited in the mid 1970s and remained together until her death in 1989.

MORE

Mature Period

De Kooning made his first significant contributions to Abstract Expressionism in the mid 1940s. He flattened the pictorial space in his pictures and simplified the color. The figure remained present, though in works like Pink Angels (c.1945) it was disembodied and dispersed across the canvas, becoming difficult to extract from the background. A complex relationship between figure and ground remained a central characteristic of de Kooning's style and is one of the most striking qualities of later compositions such as Woman I (1950-2).

De Kooning began a series of black and white abstractions in the mid 1940s, reportedly because he could not afford expensive pigments and had to turn to household enamels. They dominated his first solo show, which was held at the Charles Egan Gallery in 1948, and were instrumental in establishing his reputation. He continued to work on them until the end of the decade, eventually allowing color to enter into later works such as Excavation (1950).

De Kooning is probably best known for his paintings of women. He worked on them in spells over a nearly thirty year period, starting in the early 1940s, yet they were first exhibited in 1953 at the Sidney Janis Gallery. At the center of this show was Woman I, a picture de Kooning began in 1950 and completed in the summer of 1952. The picture's process of creation was made famous not only by a series of photographs taken by Rudy Burckhardt, but also by Thomas B. Hess' article "Willem de Kooning Paints a Picture," in which he described the process of the picture's creation as a voyage that involved hundreds of revisions and was only completed minutes before the work was loaded onto the truck to go to the gallery.

Willem de Kooning Image

Woman I was purchased from the Janis Gallery show by MoMA, which confirmed its importance in the eyes of many critics, yet the whole series of "Women" became a controversial talking point for many other reasons. De Kooning's 1948 show had made him a leader of a new generation of painters who all seemed to be interested in suppressing narrative content and figuration from their images. Now de Kooning had reintroduced the figure, and some commentators - critic Clement Greenberg included - felt it was a step backward. The painter disagreed: "What's the problem?" he once said, "this is all about freedom." And on another occasion, de Kooning commented that "flesh was the reason oil paint was invented."

De Kooning's pictures were also inevitably controversial due to the violent distortion of the figures - one of the artist's dealers once noted that his canvases actually had holes punched through them from the violence of his brushwork. The pictures were, in part, inspired by images of women in popular magazines: to create the mouth of Woman I, de Kooning cut the lips from a photograph and stuck them directly to the canvas. Others defended the series as archetypes inspired by the work of both Old Masters and modern artists. One of the most erudite among the New York School, de Kooning was steeped in art history and regarded Ingres' Odalisque (1814) as one of the major antecedents for the series - though he was also cautious about tracing out the series' entire genealogy: "I don't paint with ideas of art in mind," he said, "I see something that excites me. It becomes my content."

Others expressed distaste for the series. Critic Emily Genauer wrote in Newsday in 1969, "[de Kooning] flays [the women], beats them, stretches them on racks, draws and quarters them.. It isn't the contempt in de Kooning's works that I mind, per se. It's the absence of wholeness and diversity in a great talent who seems to have chained himself to a leering, lynx-eyed totem pole." And still, today, many dislike them for what they see as a misogynistic portrayal of woman as the "monstrous other."

Nevertheless, the series gave another boost to de Kooning's already growing reputation, and he continued it into the late 1950s. He also published his first written work, based on a lecture given at MoMA, entitled "What Abstract Art Means to Me." It was at this time that he finally became financially stable.

De Kooning was quick to become a central figure in Abstract Expressionism. He not merely advanced his leadership through his work, but became a substantial presence on the movement's social scene. He was a member of the Eighth Street Artists' Club, which met on Wednesday nights to discuss art and theory, and he also became a hard-drinking fixture at the Cedar Tavern on Tenth Street. He had a very close working relationship with Franz Kline, and was certainly the most powerful influence on the painter. He was less close to Pollock, though he admired him greatly and admitted to being jealous of his talent. He felt that Pollock possessed Michelangelo's terribilita, an ability to produce art of a sublime and awe-inspiring beauty. He once recalled, "a couple of times [Pollock] told me 'you know more, but I feel more.'"

Willem de Kooning Portrait

Late Years and Death

De Kooning rarely seemed interested in exploring and detailing the backdrops of his pictures in the 1940s and 1950s. Generally they suggested grim urban scenes, though he described the backdrops of his Women paintings as a "no-environment." By the late 1950s, however, he was beginning to show interest in a new type of scenery. He began a series of "Abstract Urban Landscapes" (1955-58), and these were followed by "Abstract Parkway Landscapes" (1957-61) and "Abstract Pastoral Landscapes" (1960-66). His personal life became correspondingly more settled: in 1961, he finally became an American citizen, after living in the U.S. for thirty-five years; and in 1963 he settled permanently in East Hampton, in a farmhouse with a large studio.

De Kooning's interests were moving away from the city, but they were not necessarily becoming any less radical. He had always looked to the Old Masters more than most of his peers, and even his Women series retained roots in traditional portraiture. His landscapes may have suggested tradition, yet they too were highly abstract and sometimes only referred to their inspiration in the title. Though the blue and yellow of Montauk Highway (1958) certainly hint at sea and sand, de Kooning made no attempt to depict an actual location. They were characterized by bold, simple gestures similar to those of Franz Kline, with whom de Kooning was once very close. And although they have attracted lesser notoriety than the Women series, they have also proved highly influential, particularly on the work of the Californian painter Richard Diebenkorn (particularly his Ocean Park series).

On Long Island de Kooning continued to paint women, but he also explored very new avenues. Around 1970 he was inspired by Henry Moore to take up sculpture for the first time, and created works whose lumpy clay modeling was carried over into their cast bronze form. The best known of these sculptures is perhaps Clam Diggers (1964), a subject also treated in some of his paintings from that period. In 1968, de Kooning returned to Holland for the first time in forty-two years for a retrospective at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam; another major retrospective was held at the same museum in 1986. Living and painting on Long Island throughout the 1980s, de Kooning created large abstract works in bright tones with simpler, more retrained gestures than those that had characterized his earlier style. His work continued to attract high praise and looked like the work of an artist still in full charge of his talents. However, de Kooning's memory began to be severely impaired towards the end of the decade. He was ultimately diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and after Elaine de Kooning died, in 1989, Willem came under the guardianship of his daughter until his death in 1997, aged 92.

The work he created in his last years has since prompted considerable debate about the nature of creativity: as de Kooning's prices continued to rise at auction, there was disagreement over whether his late works were compromised by his mental incapacity. Many disagreed, arguing that - certainly as far as the Abstract Expressionists were concerned - creativity sprung more from intuition than intellect.

LEGACY

Although undoubtedly an equal of Jackson Pollock in talent and achievement, de Kooning's work has proved less influential. His achievement was to blend Cubism, Expressionism and Surrealism, and he did so with astonishing power throughout a career remarkable for its consistent high quality. Yet as artists' concerns moved away from those of modernism, his work seemed less relevant, and for a generation of less macho, more Pop-influenced artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, de Kooning represented the epitome of the grand heroics they distrusted. Rauschenberg himself would express their distance from him most powerfully - and famously - when he purchased a drawing by de Kooning, erased it, and exhibited the result as his own artwork (Erased de Kooning Drawing, (1953)). Nevertheless, de Kooning's influence on painters remains important even to this day, particularly those attracted to gestural styles; the highly abstract and erotic work of prominent 1990s painter Cecily Brown is inconceivable without his example.

Original content written by The Art Story Contributors
comment to editor

WILLEM DE KOONING QUOTES

"I don't paint to live, I live to paint"

"I'd like to get all the colors in the world into one painting".

"I never was interested in how to make a good painting.. But to see how far one can go".

"Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure. I always seem to be wrapped up in the melodrama of vulgarity."

"I don't paint with ideas of art in mind. I see something that excites me. It becomes my content."

"Even abstract shapes must have a likeness"

"Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented"

Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning Influences

Interactive chart with Willem de Kooning's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

CLICK TO EXPAND

LEAVE A COMMENT OR SUGGESTION BELOW

We will address your comment shortly.
Error occured while saving commment. Please, try later.
Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive, and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque, he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Pablo Picasso
Joan Miró
Joan Miró
Active in Paris from the 1920s onward, and influenced by Surrealism, Miró developed a style of biomorphic abstraction which blended abstract figurative motifs, large fields of color, and primitivist symbols. This style would be an important inspiration for many Abstract Expressionists.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Joan Miró
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian, a founding member of the De Stijl movement, was a modern Dutch artist who used grids, perpendicular lines, and the three primary colors in what he deemed Neoplasticism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Piet Mondrian
Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky was an Armenian-born American painter and a major influence on the development of Abstract Expressionism. In his own art he fused elements of Cubism, Surrealism and Expressionism, and was close with key figures central to New York's burgeoning abstrct art scene, such as John Graham, Stuart Davis and Willem de Kooning.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Arshile Gorky
Chaim Soutine
Chaim Soutine
Chaim Soutine was a Jewish Expressionist painter whose textured, impasto style was influential for later gestural painters. He is especially known for his portraits, landscapes, and studies of flayed meat.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Chaim Soutine
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg was one the leading American art critics during the twentieth century. Best known as the ideological counterpart to Harold Rosenberg, Greenberg was a formalist who coined the terms "American-type painting" and 'Post-painterly abstraction.' He was a staunch champion of pure abstraction, including the work of Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Hans Hofmann.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Clement Greenberg
Harold Rosenberg
Harold Rosenberg
Harold Rosenberg was a critic, art historian, and curator who published important works on modern art and culture. He was a leading exponent of Abstract Expressionism, and coined the term "Action Painting."
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Harold Rosenberg
Franz Kline
Franz Kline
Franz Kline was an American abstract painter and one of the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism. His signature black-and-white abstractions were inspired by Japanese calligraphy, and inspired a later generation of artists who created Minimalism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Franz Kline
John Graham
John Graham
John Graham was a Russian-born American painter and a key figure in the development of Abstract Expressionism. Never adopting a singular style in his own art, Graham tutored many young abstract artists on the tenets of Cubism and Surrealism, of which he was an expert. Willem de Kooning credited Graham as the person who discovered Jackson Pollock.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information John Graham
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Cubism
De Stijl
De Stijl
Founded in the Netherlands in 1917, De Stijl was an avant-garde dedicated to isolating a single visual style that would be appropriate to all aspects of modern life, from art to design to architecture. Taking its name from a periodical, its most famous practitioners were Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian, whose mature art employed geometric blocks of primary colors and vertical and horizontal lines.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information De Stijl
Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Surrealism
Expressionism
Expressionism
Expressionism is a broad term for a host of movements in early twentieth-century Germany, from Die Brücke (1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911) to the early Neue Sachlichkeit painters in the 1920s and '30s. Many German Expressionists used vivid colors and abstracted forms to create spiritually or psychologically intense works, while others focused on depictions of war, alienation, and the modern city.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Expressionism
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg, a key figure in early Pop art, admired the textural quality of Abstract Expressionism but scorned its emotional pathos. His famous "Combines" are part sculpture, part painting, and part installation.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Robert Rauschenberg
Joan Mitchell
Joan Mitchell
Joan Mitchell was a leading second-generation Abstract Expressionist who painted large works of gestural marks and overlapping, roiled color areas. She was famous for her acerbic personality, and her later work often earns comparison with the late painterly style of Impressionist Claude Monet.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Joan Mitchell
Richard Diebenkorn
Richard Diebenkorn
Richard Diebenkorn was an American painter who helped pioneer the California-based movement of Abstract Expressionism, and later the Bay Area Figurative Movement. In all his work, Diebenkorn used the natural environment as his chief inspiration and applied soft, naturalistic color fields to the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Richard Diebenkorn
Cecily Brown
Cecily Brown
Cecily Brown is a British painter, best known for her works that incorporate visual elements of figuration and abstraction. Her paintings have a vast range of influences, from Goya to Guston.

Modern Art Information Cecily Brown
Pop Art
Pop Art
British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Pop Art
Post-Painterly Abstraction
Post-Painterly Abstraction
Post-painterly abstraction was a term developed by critic Clement Greenberg in 1964 to describe a diverse range of abstract painters who rejected the gestural styles of the Abstract Expressionists and favored instead what he called "openness or clarity." Painters as different as Ellsworth Kelly and Helen Frankenthaler were described by the term. Some employed geometric form, others veils of stained color.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Post-Painterly Abstraction
Neo-Expressionism
Neo-Expressionism
Neo-Expressionism began as a movement in German art in the early 1960s with the emergence of Georg Baselitz. It gained momentum in the 1970s, with the addition of painters such as Anselm Kiefer, Markus Lüpertz and Eugen Schönebeck. Drawing inspiration from German Expressionism, many of its practitioners focused on the country's troubled modern history. In the 1980s, it inspired many successful painters across the world, including Julian Schnabel.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Neo-Expressionism
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Jackson Pollock
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau was a movement that swept through the decorative arts and architecture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Generating enthusiasts throughout Europe, it was aimed at modernizing design and escaping the eclectic historical styles that had previously been popular. It drew inspiration from both organic and geometric forms, evolving elegant designs that united flowing, natural forms with more angular contours.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Art Nouveau
Stuart Davis
Stuart Davis
Stuart Davis was an American artist who played a key role in the development of Abstract Expressionism. Davis' "Jazz Art" (because it was considered a visual manifestation of jazz music) was highly experimental. He was one of the youngest artists represented at the 1913 Armory Show and for years taught at the Art Students League of New York.

Modern Art Information Stuart Davis
Elaine De Kooning
Elaine De Kooning
Elaine de Kooning was an important Abstract Expressionist painter and collagist whose work combines gestural energy with formalist investigations. She was married to the famous New York painter Willem de Kooning.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Elaine De Kooning
Henry Moore
Henry Moore
Henry Moore was an English sculptor and artist. He was best known for his abstract monumental bronze sculptures. His forms are usually abstractions of the human figure, typically depicting reclining figures, or even more commonly, the mother and child theme.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Henry Moore
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns is an American artist who rose to prominence in the late 1950s for his multi-media constructions, dubbed by critics as Neo-Dada. Johns' work, including his world-famous targets and American flags series, were important predecessors to Pop art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Jasper Johns
Seated Woman
Seated Woman

Title: 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

Pink Angels
Pink Angels

Title: 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

Attic
Attic

Title: 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

Excavation
Excavation

Title: Excavation (1950)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Excavation marked the culmination of de Kooning's abstract phase of the 1940s. Like Attic, it is concerned with 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

Woman I
Woman I

Title: 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

July 4th
July 4th

Title: 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

Women Singing II
Women Singing II

Title: 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

Untitled VII
Untitled VII

Title: 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

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.