Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning

American Painter and Sculptor

Born: April 24, 1904 - Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Died: March 19, 1997 - East Hampton, New York
"Art should not have to be a certain way. It is no use worrying about being related to something it is impossible not to be related to."
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"Whatever an artist's personal feelings are, as soon as an artist fills a certain area on the canvas or circumscribes it, he becomes historical. He acts from or upon other artists."
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"Flesh was very important to a painter then. Both the church and the state recognized it. The interest in the difference of textures - between silk, wood, velvet, glass, marble - was there only in relation to flesh. Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented."
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"The attitude that nature is chaotic and that the artist puts order into it, is a very absurd point of view, I think. All that we can hope for is to put some order into ourselves."
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"If I do paint abstract art, that's what abstract art means to me. I frankly do not understand the question."
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"Content, if you want to say, is a glimpse of something, an encounter, you know, like a flash - it's very tiny, very tiny, content."
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"I cut out a lot of mouths. First of all, I felt everything ought to have a mouth. Maybe it was like a pun, you know what I mean, but maybe it's even sexual, or whatever it is, I don't know. But anyhow I used to cut out a lot of mouths and then I painted those figures and then I put the mouth more or less in the place where it was supposed to be. It always turned out to be very beautiful and it helped me immensely to have this real thing."
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Summary of Willem de Kooning

One of the most prominent and celebrated of the Abstract Expressionist painters, Willem de Kooning's pictures typify the vigorous, gestural style of the movement. Perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, he developed a radically abstract style of painting that fused Cubism, Surrealism and Expressionism. While many of his colleagues moved from figuration to abstraction, de Kooning always painted figures, most notably women, and abstractions concurrently, making no distinction between the art historical categories. De Kooning's real subject, he insisted, was space and the figure-ground relation.

De Kooning fused abstraction, figuration, and landscapes in various ways throughout the many long decades of his career, and his unceasing journey to find new forms and subjects made his overall output more eclectic than most of his colleagues. His engagement with popular culture was also unique and informed a host of post-war artists from the Neo-Dadaism of Robert Rauschenberg to the Pop Art of James Rosenquist, and younger painters such as Cecily Brown have explored the gestural eroticism of his later paintings.


  • Unlike most of his colleagues, de Kooning 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 Harold Rosenberg's definition of Action Painting - the painting is an event, an encounter between the artist and the materials, rather than a finished work in the traditional sense.
  • Although he came to embody the popular image of the macho, hard-drinking artist, 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 possessed great facility, having been formally trained as a young man, and while he looked to the Modern masters like Picasso, Matisse, and Miró, he equally admired the likes of Ingres, Rubens, and Rembrandt.

Biography of Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning Life and Legacy

De Kooning’s drinking was nearly as prolific as his art making. He would drink until he had blackouts and a doctor warned him that his nervous system could be affected. In fact, de Kooning’s consumption of alcohol cost him his marriage as well as his mental and physical health.

Progression of Art


Seated Woman

Seated Woman evolved out of a commission for a portrait. Around this time, Elaine Fried (they were not yet married) often modeled for de Kooning (one can see a resemblance of her, in the auburn-colored hair). The woman, wearing a low-cut yellow dress, sits on a chair with one leg crossed over the other. One arm rests in her open lap while the other seems to bend up toward her face, although there is no hand attached to it. As curator John Elderfield points out, all of her body parts, which seem more like shapes, float around her body, not quite connected to one another. De Kooning wrote in the early 1950s, "With intimate proportions I mean the familiarity you have when you look at somebody's big toe when close to it, or a crease in a hand or a nose - or lips or a ty [thigh]. The drawing those parts make are interchangeable one for the other and become so many spots of paint or brushstrokes." Given the struggles de Kooning had with painting certain body parts, it makes sense that he would reduce them to so many shapes, flipping, rotating, and using them in various contexts.

One can also see de Kooning's artistic influences on display in this painting. The fractured form of the figure certainly recalls Picasso, but Arshile Gorky's The Artist and his Mother (c.1926-c.1942), with all of its erasures and seemingly unfinished state, is also evident. The background of oranges, greens, and blues has been scraped down many times, creating a smooth, almost jewel-like surface. The planes of color hint at a Cubist space but also Mondrian's Neo-Plastic paintings. The squares also suggest the artist's studio walls, with various canvases tacked and piled against the wall. Coming on the heels of a series of paintings of seated men, Seated Woman (c.1940) can be seen as a companion piece and was de Kooning's first major painting of a woman, a subject to which he would continuously return over the decades.

Oil and charcoal on masonite - The Philadelphia Museum of Art


Pink Angels

In Pink Angels, pink- and coral-colored, biomorphic shapes float above and meld with a background of mustard yellows and golds, and the painting marks an important stage in de Kooning's evolution from figuration to abstraction in the later 1940s. The fleshy pink shapes evoke eyes and other anatomical forms that have been torn apart or are in the process of colliding. Certainly the carnage of World War II would not have been far from his mind, but curator John Elderfield has also pointed out connections to Picasso's Guernica as well as Miró, Matisse, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Importantly, de Kooning resisted disguising the process of the painting's making. Throughout the composition, charcoal lines outline the pink forms and intersect the golden areas. One sees an eye, perhaps part of a fish head, in the bottom left corner, and a circle and rectangle in the bottom center next to a crab-like form in the bottom right. De Kooning would often draw shapes onto paper and then trace them onto the canvas. As Elderfield describes, "He was continuing to use tracings to position and reposition drawn shapes beside and above each other on the canvas as he worked, a technique that indubitably helps to account for the complex layering and sudden, shifting dissonances that animate the work's surface." While most of the Abstract Expressionists denied that they made sketches for their paintings and instead worked spontaneously, de Kooning created a method that allowed for fluid construction and reconstruction of his compositions, leaving them still with an aura of spontaneity.

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



De Kooning was already forty-four years old when he had his first solo exhibition at the Charlie Egan Gallery in the spring of 1948. Most of the paintings in the exhibition resembled Untitled - compositions painted in black and white, with vaguely recognizable shapes and complex plays of figure and ground. The show was little noticed in the press, but it jolted the artists of the downtown scene - old timers and newcomers alike. With the reduction of the color palette to stark black and white, de Kooning's play with surface and depth are amplified and unstable, creating a dynamic composition that threatens to break apart.

While one might observe a haunch or a penis, there is also something calligraphic about the white lines de Kooning draws on the surface, and one is reminded that he was a sign painter at one point in time. There was much interest in the time among the Abstract Expressionists about symbols and ideographs and how paintings might communicate a universal human emotion or experience. De Kooning's friend Harold Rosenberg described these paintings, calling them "symbolist abstraction dissociated from their sources in nature[;] organic shapes are carriers of emotional charges in the same category as numbers, mathematical signs, letters of the alphabet; the memory of a friend may be aroused by a pair of gloves or a telephone number, an erotic memory by a curved line or an initial." And, indeed, the shapes and signs enact a sort of mysterious drama that seems to be constantly shifting, making the viewer constantly adjust and see anew.

Oil and enamel on paper mounted on composition board - The Art Institute of Chicago



Even as he returned to figuration in the late 1940s, he embarked on another abstraction, Excavation at the same time. Just over six-and-a-half-feet tall and eight-feet wide, Excavation is not as monumental as some later Abstract Expressionist paintings, but it is the biggest painting de Kooning ever made. The pictorial space de Kooning depicted on the canvas was closely tied to his own embodied sense of space in the physical world. In a talk he wrote for the Artists' Club, de Kooning explained, "If I stretch my arms next to the rest of myself and wonder where my fingers are - that is all the space I need as a painter." In other words, de Kooning's canvases are born at the fullest extension of his arms, where his fingers hold the brush that touches the canvases. To move beyond this scale one risks losing the human intimacy of the space.

The bulk of the surface is covered with dirty white, cream, and yellowish shapes outlined with black and gray lines. Throughout the canvas, one sees passages of crimson, blue, magenta, gold, and aqua. The effect is an all-over composition with no single point of entry and which draws the viewer's eyes across the entirety of the canvas. No one section stands out a more important or less interesting than another. That being said, one does see something of a ground line at the bottom of the edge of the painting and a rectangle that evokes a door or a window. Just as the composition seems to expand beyond the edges of the canvas, de Kooning brings the viewer back to a threshold, suggesting a particular place and time, grounding them in the present. Harold Rosenberg commented on the painting, "For all the protracted agitation that produced it, Excavation was a classical painting, majestic and distant, like a formula wrung out of testing explosives. If, as de Kooning liked to say, the artist function by 'getting into the canvas' and working his way out again, this masterpiece had seen him not only depart but close the door behind him."

Oil on canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago


Woman III

Woman III belongs to the series of Women paintings de Kooning showed at the Sidney Janis Gallery to much outrage and controversy within the art world. The surface of the canvas is covered in thick swathes of energetic, vertical, and horizontal gestures of creamy and silvery hues. From this frantic surface, the figure of a wide-eyed, large-breasted woman emerges. She sports blond hair and a big smile. The compactness of the figure gives the sense of the body being squeezed or constrained, but at the same time, its gestural quality gives it a sense of wound-up energy. The slight tapering of the figure towards the knees and ankles is reminiscent of prehistoric figurines and Cycladic idols, precedents of the importance of the female form in art to which de Kooning often alluded. Importantly, de Kooning blends the figure and ground together, making it difficult to discern where one begins and ends, hence the woman both dissolves into and emerges from the background, an effect that de Kooning termed "no-environment." In the Women paintings from the early 1950s, we begin to see the ways in which body and landscape will merge in his later paintings.

The theme of women was one that de Kooning returned to regularly. Some cited his rocky relationship with his wife, his estranged relationship with his mother, and his penchant for womanizing as the source for the subject. Some went so far to say that de Kooning must hate women because, in this instance, he used smears of red paint to depict three bullet holes across her chest, but de Kooning responded to the accusation by saying, "I thought it was rubies." Elaine de Kooning clarified, explaining, "The bullet holes, be it known, are very chic rubies which stick to the skin unaided or abetted by pins or chains - a device de Kooning saw in Harper's Bazaar and never forgot."

While critics may have projected their own anxieties and misogynist tendencies onto the pictures, they missed the ways in which de Kooning engaged with and incorporated popular, consumer culture in his paintings. He often spoke of his women as being funny and larger than life, satirizing the shopping denizens of department stores and the fashionable ladies who paraded down Madison Avenue. He may have looked to ancient idols and classical odalisques, but de Kooning was equally intrigued with pin-up girls and movie stars. He was one of the only Abstract Expressionists to take on such subject matter, and for this reason he became an important touchstone for younger artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, and later Pop Artists.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection


Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point

At the end of the 1950s, de Kooning began to spend more and more time in East Hampton, a place far more rural and quieter than the bustling streets of New York City. In Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point, we see the quintessential bold strokes de Kooning had become known for, but the color palette and arrangement seem unlike what had come before. Curator John Elderfield refers to the new palette as "rococo hues of pink, yellow, and blue" and links it to his recent trip to Italy. The bright, pastel nature of these colors evokes a brighter landscape and reflections of water. Louse Point was a section of beach not far from where de Kooning was building his new studio, and Rosy-fingered dawn is a reference to Homer's epic The Odyssey. The reference also draws one's attention to the pink forms, which are also reminiscent of de Kooning's various forays with his women figures. While there is no form reminiscent of the figure or of landscape, for that matter, one thinks of de Kooning's quotation, "The landscape is in the Woman and there is Woman in the landscape."

The surface of the painting is quite varied. There is a lushness throughout, but parts are heavily impastoed, where de Kooning applied the paint thickly, while other parts are dry and thin where de Kooning pressed newspaper onto the surface to absorb the excess oil. Elderfield also points out that drips of paint run in multiple directions, suggesting that de Kooning worked on the canvas from multiple vantage points before settling on its final orientation. Such flexibility and open-endedness speaks to de Kooning's spontaneity and his desire to not pin any one form or composition down before it was ready.

Oil on canvas - Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam


Woman and Child

It did not take long after de Kooning moved to Springs, East Hampton, that he again took up the figure. While he was still very much interested in pin-ups and pop stars, he also turned his attention to those who lived near him and frequented the beaches. Here, in Woman and Child, we see the pink flesh and breast of a woman whose knees are drawn up and touching each other. Perhaps she is lying on her back with her knees in the air. A goggle-eyed, orange-haired figure, presumably the child of the title, lies next to her, or perhaps the child is sitting. Of course, though, the title recalls the titles given to traditional depictions of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child, an allusion de Kooning was surely aware of. In a radical gesture, de Kooning makes the heavenly and spiritual fleshy and material.

De Kooning distorts the perspective and the figures to such a degree that the space of the painting becomes utterly ambiguous. As in his earliest Women paintings from the 1940s, body parts assume shapes and lives of their own, quite apart from where they are supposed to be. The increasingly abstract figure will completely dissolve, once again, into large, gestural, all-over abstract compositions in the 1970s.

Many decried these paintings as being out of step with the times. Their over-sweet pink and pastel hues, their lush and seemingly excessive gesturalness, and their exuberance contrasted sharply with the coolness of Color Field Painting, Minimalism, and Pop Art of the time. Some also felt uncomfortable with a man of de Kooning's age engaging in such overt eroticism. Despite these concerns, de Kooning was at the height of his fame in the 1960s, with collectors and museums alike wanting to acquire his paintings.

Oil on paper mounted on canvas


Untitled VI

By the end of the 1970s, de Kooning was struggling not only with his own drinking and depression but with his familiar process of all-over paintings as well; he was looking for a new way of painting. A friend recalled about the artist at that time, "What [de Kooning] would like to do now would be very 'free,' and he gently waves his hands in the air. He thinks about Matisse's La Danse." In some ways, even as he was trying to find a new path, he returned to old ways. The surface of Untitled VI is both thickly and sumptuously painted in parts and thin and scraped down in others. One sees evocative shapes, layers, and sharp juxtapositions.

The wispy ribbons of red and blue seem to blow across the white surface of the canvas, suggesting shapes, eddies, and doodles. The white, negative space between the lines suddenly becomes solid and equally suggestive, a play with figure and ground always at the heart of de Kooning's work. One of de Kooning's studio assistants from the time recalled that the forms in his paintings from the 1980s were often inspired by his earlier paintings, explaining that he looked at photographs of the older paintings and simplified their forms and lines "so that the new paintings are distillations of the old ones."

After de Kooning stopped painting in 1990, many looked to these later paintings suspiciously, as if they were too indebted to a team of studio assistants who were covering for an ailing artist, but when one considers them in relation to his earlier work, the paintings from the 1980s are an elegant and playful evocation of his entire career.

Oil on canvas - Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Willem de Kooning Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 01 Jun 2011. Updated and modified regularly
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