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Artists Willem de Kooning Biography and Legacy
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Willem de Kooning

Dutch-American Draftsman, Painter, and Sculptor

Movements and Styles: Abstract Expressionism, Action Painting

Born: April 24, 1904 - Rotterdam, The Netherlands

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

Willem de Kooning Timeline

"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."

Willem de Kooning Signature
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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.

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 MirĂ³'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 Works Progress Administration 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.

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.

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.

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's 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.'"

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.


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.

Most Important Art

Willem de Kooning Famous Art

Woman III (1951-53)

The images from the Women series are perhaps de Kooning's most famous. 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 III 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's 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."
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First published on 01 Jun 2011. Updated and modified regularly.
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