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Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning

The Dutch-born American painter Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) was a leader of the abstract expressionist movement of the 1940s and 1950s.

Before the 1940s the major advances in modern painting were forged on English and European soil. American artists, although aware of these advances, had not generally participated in their origin. After World War II, however, the United States, and in particular New York City, became a focal point for modernist developments. The most celebrated of these is known as abstract expressionism—abstract, because most of the new art eschewed all traces of visible reality; expressionism, because it appeared to have been created through uncontrolled and sometimes violent painterly gestures. Known also as action painting or painterly abstraction (historians have yet to agree on the most appropriate designation), abstract expressionism reached international scope and influence during the 1950s.

Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock are the best-known exponents of this new American style. Although their works inspired public ridicule at first, both artists are now recognized as major figures within the broader tradition of art history. For de Kooning this recognition is especially significant, because he always viewed himself as a link in the great tradition of painterly art that runs from the Renaissance to the present day.

Willem de Kooning was born in Rotterdam, Holland, on April 24, 1904. In 1916 he left school to work as a commercial artist, and he enrolled in evening classes at the Academy of Fine Arts in his native city, where he studied for eight years. During this period he became aware of the group called de Stijl, whose membership included Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg, two of the most influential abstractionists of the early twentieth century.

Early Career

In 1926 de Kooning immigrated to the United States. He took a studio in New York City and supported himself by doing commercial art and house painting. In his own painting he began to experiment with abstraction but, like many artists during the Depression, was unable to devote full time to his work. The opportunity to do so came in 1935, when he worked for a year on the Federal Art Project of the Works Project Administration.

In the 1940s de Kooning's career as a painter began to accelerate. He participated in several group shows and in 1946 had his first one-man exhibition in New York City. Among sophisticated patrons and dealers this show established de Kooning as a major figure in contemporary American painting. In the same year he married Elaine Fried, and two years later he taught at the experimental Black Mountain College, which was then under the direction of the influential color abstractionist Josef Albers.

De Kooning's paintings from the 1930s and 1940s reveal many of the same stylistic vacillations that characterize his better-known productions of the period after 1950. In the early work de Kooning approached the problems of abstraction cautiously. Bill-Lee's Delight (1946), for instance, is ostensibly devoid of subject matter from the visible world. Rough-hewn masses sweep toward the center of the composition, where they collide, overlap, and twist into painterly space. Many of the planes, however, particularly those on the periphery of the painting, appear to be remnants of the human body; their undulating contours loosely recall arms, legs, and torsos that have been distilled into pictorial entities. In other words, the painting retains figurative allusions in spite of its apparent abstractness.

Retaining the Human Image

Bill-Lee's Delight indirectly reveals de Kooning's deep commitment to the image of the human body. Even earlier works show the character of this commitment more explicitly. Queen of Hearts (1943-1946) presents the three-quarter image of a seated woman whose head, breasts, and arms are drawn with loosely flowing contours. The figure is freely distorted and somewhat unsettling: the head is twisted, the facial anatomy is askew, and the limbs and breasts appear ready to twist off and float into space. In overall style the painting recalls European surrealism with its eerie interpretations of figurative content. It is also similar to the abstract, quasi-surrealist style of Arshile Gorky, with whom de Kooning had once shared a studio.

Some of de Kooning's finest paintings were executed in the period that ended in 1950; these include Ashville (1949) and Excavation (1950). Both works retain some figurative allusions, but they achieve a powerful, abstract flatness, thereby insisting upon their identity as paintings. Moreover, both canvases achieve this identity within a relatively restricted color range; this lends tautness to the compelling presence of each painting.

De Kooning since 1950

In spite of the achievement marked by paintings like Ashville and Excavation, de Kooning was evidently uncomfortable with the problems of abstraction. In 1950 he returned to the human figure, embarking upon his famous "Woman" series. Woman I (1950-1952) is probably the most famous of the series. The figure is executed in a tortured, aggressive manner and emerges like some demonic presence. Paint itself is likewise assaulted—dragged, pushed, and scraped—with a technique that, for many viewers, is the ultimate of abstract expressionist style. When the "Woman" paintings were shown in 1953 in New York City, they catapulted de Kooning to fame and notoriety. Although he was honored with numerous awards and retrospective exhibitions after that, his work periodically revealed doubts and uncertainties about its direction.

During the late 1950s de Kooning again abandoned the human figure in favor of abstraction. The paintings from these years are sometimes called "landscapes" because their open, expansive space is suggestive of the space of the natural environment. In Suburb in Havana (1958), for instance, broad, earth-colored diagonals reach into space and extend toward a blue mass that resembles both sky and water. Because of the explosiveness with which they open pictorial space, these landscapes count among de Kooning's most spontaneous and exhilarating achievements.

From the early 1960s de Kooning's development seemed problematic and uncertain. Once again he returned to the human figure and a second "Woman" series. These works display the master's characteristic blend of technical gusto and emotional fervor, but they evoked mixed opinions among his critics. Perhaps more historical perspective is needed before these paintings can be viewed objectively.

De Kooning's first retrospective took place in 1953 in Boston. In 1954 he enjoyed a second, at the Venice Biennale. The largest retrospective was held in New York City in 1969. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1960, and he received the Freedom Award Medal in 1964.

Since the 1960s de Kooning continued to be one of the most powerful representatives of abstract art. The period from 1981 to 1989 was one of the most fertile of his life, giving rise to over 300 works. Sadly, this burst of creativity proved to be his last. Alzheimer's Disease, diagnosed in 1990, prevented further work for the remaining seven years of his life. De Kooning died on March 19, 1997, at his home in East Hampton, New York.

Further Reading

Several monographs on de Kooning have been written, among them, Thomas B. Hess, Willem de Kooning (1959), and Harriet Janis and Rudi Blesh, De Kooning (1960). Also important is Hess's Willem de Kooning (1969), the catalog for the Museum of Modern Art's de Kooning retrospective of 1969. For a more general picture of de Kooning's relation to postwar American art see Barbara Rose, American Art since 1900 (1967). For more information, please see Harry F. Gaugh, De Kooning (Abbeville Press, 1983); Paul Cummings, Willem De Kooning: Drawings, Paintings, Sculpture (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1983); and Diane Waldman, De Kooning (Abrams, 1987). □

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de Kooning, Willem

Willem de Kooning (də kōō´nĬng), 1904–97, American painter, b. Netherlands; studied Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques. De Kooning immigrated to the United States, arriving as a stowaway in 1926 and settling in New York City, where he worked on the Federal Arts Project (1935). He began experiments with abstraction as early as 1928, but continued to produce realistic paintings throughout the 1930s, and he later oscillated between an abstracted figuration and pure abstraction. Influenced by Arshile Gorky, de Kooning forged a powerful abstract style and in the 1940s became a leader of abstract expressionism. In his monumental series of the early 1950s entitled Woman, he reintroduced a representational element. Woman I (1950–52; Mus. of Modern Art, New York City), with its startling ferocity, brought him considerable notice and some notoriety. He subsequently reverted chiefly to nonfigurative work, but during the 1960s, when he moved to Long Island, he also produced more paintings of women as well as many works with landscape elements. In this period de Kooning also created semiabstract sculptural figures in bronze and several lithographs. He created a dazzling group of painterly abstractions in the 1970s.

Slashed with color and formed with eloquent brushstrokes, de Kooning's often huge canvases are charged with explosive energy; many are widely considered some of the masterpieces of abstract expressionism. His last works, produced (1980–90) when he was increasingly affected by Alzheimer's disease, include hundreds of large canvases in elegantly composed configurations; their elements are pared down, and their limited, mainly primary colors form sinuously intertwining ribbons. In some sense, de Kooning's art endured amid his encroaching dementia until he stopped painting in mid-1990. He was married to the painter Elaine Fried de Kooning (1920–1989).

See biographies by H. F. Gaugh (1983), L. Hall (1993, repr. 2000), and M. Stevens and A. Swan (2004); studies by H. Rosenberg (1974), D. Waldman (1978 and 1988), D. Cateforis (1994), D. Sylvester et al. (1994), G. Garrels and R. Storr (1995), S. Yard (1997), K. Kertess et al. (1998), C. Morris (1999), E. Liever (2000), and S. F. Lake (2010).

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de Kooning, Willem

de Kooning, Willem (1904–97) US painter, b. Netherlands. De Kooning was greatly influenced by Picasso and Arshile Gorky. In 1948, he became one of the leaders of abstract expressionism. Unlike Pollock, he kept a figurative element in his work and shocked the public with violently distorted images, such as the Women series (1953). His emphasis on technique became known as action painting.

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de Kooning, Willem

Willem de Kooning


Personal

Born April 24, 1904, in Rotterdam, Netherlands; came to the United States, 1926; naturalized U.S. citizen, 1961; died March 19, 1997, in East Hampton, NY; son of Leendert (a beverage distributor) and Cornelia (Nobel) de Kooning; married Elaine Marie Catherine Fried, 1943 (died 1989); children: (with companion Joan Ward) Lisa. Education: Attended Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques.




Career

Artist. Apprenticed to commercial artists Jan and Jaap Gidding, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, 1916; assistant to art director of a Rotterdam department store, 1920-23; house painter in Hoboken, NJ, 1927; commercial artist in New York, NY, 1927-28; mural artist for Federal Arts Project, New York, NY, 1935-39. Instructor, Black Mountain College, Beria, NC, 1948, and Yale University, New Haven, CT, 1950-51, 1959-60. Exhibitions: Charles Egan Gallery, New York, NY, 1948; Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, NY, 1953; Paul Kantor Gallery, Beverly Hills, CA, 1961; Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 1969; Baltimore Museum of Art, 1972; Seattle Art Museum, 1976; Galerie Templon, Paris, France, 1977; Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY, 1978; Helsinki National Museum of Art, 1978; Whitney Museum, New York, NY, 1983; and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, 1994. Work in numerous museum permanent collections, including Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Guggenheim Museum, Whitney Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, PA, National Gallery, Washington, D.C., Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Tate Gallery, London, and Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.



Member

National Institute of Arts and Letters, Royal Academy of Fine Arts (Stockholm, Sweden).



Awards, Honors

Logan Medal and Purchase Prize, Art Institute of Chicago, 1951; Freedom Award Medal, 1964; Order of Orange-Nassau, Holland, 1964; Talens Prize International, Amsterdam, 1968; Gold Medal, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1975; Artist of the Year Award, Fairfield Arts Festival, 1978; Mellon Prize (with Eduardo Chillida), Carnegie Institute, 1979; Max Beckman Prize, 1984; Kaiser Ring Award, 1984; National Medal of Arts, 1986; Mayor's Liberty Medal, New York, NY, 1986.

Writings

Contributor to books, including Modern Artists in America, edited by Robert Motherwell and Ad Reinhardt, [New York, NY], 1951, and Willem de Kooning, by Thomas B. Hess, [New York, NY], 1969. Contributor of articles to periodicals, including Artnews, Transformation, and Museum of Modern Art Bulletin.




Sidelights

Dutch-born American painter Willem de Kooning was a leader of the abstract expressionist movement of the 1940s and 1950s. Before the 1940s, the major advances in modern painting were forged on English and European soil. American artists, although aware of these advances, had not generally participated in their origin. After World War II, however, the United States, and in particular New York City, became a focal point for modernist developments. The most celebrated of these is known as abstract expressionism: abstract because most of the new art eschewed all traces of visible reality, and expressionist because it appeared to have been created through uncontrolled and sometimes violent painterly gestures. Known to art historians also as action painting or painterly abstraction, abstract expressionism reached international scope and influence during the 1950s.


De Kooning was born on April 24, 1904, in the Netherlands, the son of Leendert de Kooning, a beverage distributor, and Cornelia Nobel, who ran a tough seaman's bar. At age twelve he began an apprenticeship at a commercial art-and-design firm whose owners, Jan and Jaap Gidding, enrolled him in night classes at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques. For eight years de Kooning attended the school, "absorbing the breadth of a wide curriculum which was nevertheless strict in its determination to give every aspirant a stern academic training in the arts and a mastercraftsman's proficiency in craft techniques," according to an essayist for Contemporary Artists. During this time, the young de Kooning was exposed to the work of artists Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, and other modernists. In 1924 he spent a year in Brussels, Belgium, working as a commercial artist and studying art. He completed his degree in Rotterdam the following year.



Stows Away to America

In 1926 de Kooning stowed away on board a ship to America and entered the United States as an illegal immigrant. He lived first in a boardinghouse for Dutch seamen in Hoboken, New Jersey, then in a Manhattan studio. For eight years, de Kooning worked at odd jobs as a house painter and commercial artist while pursuing his art on weekends. In 1935 he landed his first full-time job as an artist when he joined the mural division of the just-beginning Federal Arts Project, which job gave him an opportunity to experiment with abstract art. Soon thereafter he decided to abandon his work designing window displays for shoe stores and painting public murals to concentrate on the new style of art called abstract expressionism. Abstract expressionism was an art movement that was made up of different styles and methods, and it emphasized the artist's freedom to use nontraditional means to express attitudes and emotions.

De Kooning's paintings from the 1930s and 1940s reveal many of the same stylistic vacillations that would characterize his better-known productions of the period after 1950. In the early work de Kooning approached the problems of abstraction cautiously. The 1946 work Bill-Lee's Delight, for instance, is ostensibly devoid of subject matter from the visible world. Rough-hewn masses sweep toward the center of the composition, where they collide, overlap, and twist into painterly space. Many of the planes, however, particularly those on the periphery of the painting, appear to be remnants of the human body; their undulating contours loosely recall arms, legs, and torsos that have been distilled into pictorial entities. In other words, the painting retains figurative allusions in spite of its apparent abstractness.


Bill-Lee's Delight indirectly reveals de Kooning's deep commitment to the image of the human body. Even earlier works show the character of this commitment more explicitly. Queen of Hearts, dating from 1943-1946, presents the three-quarter image of a seated woman whose head, breasts, and arms are drawn with loosely flowing contours. The figure is freely distorted and somewhat unsettling: the head is twisted, the facial anatomy is askew, and the limbs and breasts appear ready to twist off and float into space. In overall style the painting recalls European surrealism with its eerie interpretations of figurative content. It is also similar to the abstract, quasi-surrealist style of Arshile Gorky, with whom de Kooning had once shared a studio.



First One-Man Show

De Kooning mounted his first one-man show in 1948, at age forty-four. A series of paintings called Light in August—created in black and white because neutral paints were less expensive—"caused a critical
stir and are viewed as marking the birth of abstract expressionism, an art movement that stresses the depiction of emotion through shapes and colors," as David Zimmerman explained in USA Today. "When de Kooning's Excavation won the major prize at the Art Institute of Chicago's 1951 exhibit, it was viewed as a vindication for the entire avant-garde movement. . . . Much of what followed—Minimalism, Deconstructionism, [Optical Art], Pop—was seen as a reaction to de Kooning's style." De Kooning, however, credited Pollock with inaugurating abstract expressionism.

The essayist for Contemporary Artists noted that de Kooning's paintings shared Pollock's energy but were less chaotic than were Pollock's: "A number of them (generally based on figures and usually those of women) seemed to transmute at least a part of what Jackson Pollock had discovered. Rarely with Pollock's random attack (most of them, but by no means all, were very carefully strung together in professionally correct composition), they still inspired the same effect of splintered or sprawling confusion—an emotional confusion rather than a visual one. For all their frequent and decorous attention to expert tailoring, these pictures—full of pastel tints and black outlines or dark areas edged with white—were moving proof that here was an artist who combines taste with passion."

"Between 1946 and 1949," according to the essayist for the International Dictionary of Art and Artists, "de Kooning produced a series of black and white abstract paintings whose densely packed forms and lines interlock so completely that neither black nor white can be read as figure or ground. In Light in August (Tehran), for example, black forms that seemingly rest on a white ground suddenly recede beneath other white areas and lines that bound and cross over them. The result is a dynamic interaction of lines and shapes that vigorously defy spatial logic. Although this ambiguity between black and white in this painting has been shown to have parallels in and perhaps derive from William Faulkner's 1932 novel, Light in August, most of the paintings of this period defy any direct narrative or figural associations. Unlike Pollock's classic drip canvases of the late 1940's, with skeins of paint that hover gracefully over the infinite space of the canvas, de Kooning's black and white paintings display a more muscular, vehement painterly gesture."


In 1950 de Kooning began a work he called Woman I. Over a two-year period he painted daily and washed away images on the same canvas, never able to satisfy his vision. Then in June 1952 he finished his work. The figure is executed in a tortured, aggressive manner and emerges like some demonic presence. Paint itself is likewise assaulted—dragged, pushed, and scraped—with a technique that, for many viewers, is the ultimate of abstract expressionist style. For the remainder of the year de Kooning produced a series of increasingly grotesque and decreasingly recognizable paintings of women that was exhibited with great fanfare in March 1953 at the Sidney Janis Gallery. The "Woman" paintings catapulted de Kooning to fame and notoriety.


The art world was divided in its response to de Kooning's new works. He was praised by the more conservative critics, who were struggling for a vocabulary to discuss abstract expressionism and were thankful to be able to discover a vaguely recognizable image in his works. More-devoted fans of abstract expressionism criticized de Kooning for a lack of commitment to abstraction. Robert Coates in the New Yorker magazine noted that de Kooning fails in his "Woman" series of paintings to "commit himself to either their representational or their abstract possibilities but hesitates constantly between the two, and the result is a splashy and confused muddle of pigment that obscures as much as it reveals of the subject."



Freedom of Abstraction

In a lecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, de Kooning had answered those who criticized his paintings for their references to recognizable
objects. He observed that when the abstractionists of the turn of the twentieth century came to be well known, they brought with them a theory that dictated what could not be included in art: "The question, as they saw it, was not so much what you could paint but rather what you could not paint. You could not paint a house or a tree or a mountain. It was then that subject matter came into existence as something you ought not to have."


In 1955 Hurricane Diane hit the East Coast, causing 184 deaths and a record amount of damage. De Kooning seized the event as a symbol for his art. His transition paintings had a chaotic appearance, and they marked his movement by the end of the decade into pure abstraction. A few years later he again abandoned the human figure in favor of abstraction in paintings that are sometimes called "landscapes" because their open, expansive space is suggestive of the space of the natural environment. In 1958's Suburb in Havana, for instance, broad, earth-colored diagonals reach into space and extend toward a blue mass that resembles both sky and water. Because of the explosiveness with which they open pictorial space, these landscapes count among de Kooning's most spontaneous and exhilarating achievements.


From the early 1960s de Kooning's development seemed problematic and uncertain. Once again he returned to the human figure and a second "Woman" series. These works display the master's characteristic blend of technical gusto and emotional fervor, but they evoked mixed opinions among his critics. Perhaps more historical perspective is needed before these paintings can be viewed objectively.


De Kooning's first retrospective took place in 1953 in Boston. In 1954 he enjoyed a second, at the Venice Biennale. The largest retrospective was held in New York City in 1969. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1960, and he received the Freedom Award Medal in 1964. By the 1960s he was one of the most powerful representatives of abstract art. The period from 1981 to 1989 was one of the most fertile of his life, giving rise to over three hundred works. Sadly, this burst of creativity proved to be his last.



Troubled Personal Life

In the early 1950s, as Peter Plagens wrote in Newsweek, de Kooning "spent his free time hanging out with other abstract expressionists and the critics who befriended them—smoking, drinking, arguing and sometimes brawling in a Greenwich Village dive called the Cedar Tavern. They also chased women. De Kooning, a diminutive hunk with a leading man's face, was notoriously good at that, too." He married a fellow artist, Elaine Fried, in 1943, but the union collapsed in the mid-1950s under the weight of his heavy drinking. De Kooning later had a daughter, Lisa, with commercial artist Joan Ward. By the 1960s the artist "was lost in a haze of violent alcoholism; for some time after he was only intermittently able to paint," wrote Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight. De Kooning and Elaine Fried de Kooning never divorced, and she returned to rescue him from the severe drinking problem which was causing blackouts and memory loss. In 1978 she persuaded him to seek help from Alcoholics' Anonymous.


In 1989 Elaine de Kooning died. De Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease in 1990 and his mental health soon deteriorated to the point where the court appointed his daughter and lawyer as conservators of his estate. "Under the direction of his daughter and lawyers, nurses and attendants guided de Kooning daily through the acts of washing, dressing, eating and a session on an exercise bicycle, and then steered him into his East Hampton studio," Myrna Oliver wrote in the Los Angeles Times. "There, until he finally ceased painting in the early 1990s, he returned to some form of awareness, mixing his own colors and applying them to canvas. When he tired, assistants led him away and he spent the rest of the day sitting and staring at the floor or out the window." De Kooning could not sign his name after 1986, but he continued to paint, Calvin Tomkins noted in the New Yorker. On March 19, 1997, the artist died at his home in East Hampton, New York, at the age of ninety-two. It is estimated that his estate contains approximately one hundred as-yet-unexhibited paintings, as well as a modern art collection worth untold millions.

The art world saw the center of avant garde activity move from Paris to New York during the 1950s. "De Kooning's career coincided with, and helped to catalyze, the shift in balance of power from Paris to New York," Carol Strickland wrote in the Christian Science Monitor. "In the 1950s, New York became the center of artistic innovation, and de Kooning's work profoundly influenced subsequent generations of artists. In his heyday, the Dutch master who loved

[Image not available for copyright reasons]

his adopted country with an immigrant's passion, gave America an artist of international stature, ranking among the giants of the 20th Century."

If you enjoy the works of Willem de Kooning

If you enjoy the works of Willem de Kooning, you may also want to check out the following:


The paintings of abstract expressionist artists such as Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Jackson Pollack (1912-1956), Joan Mitchell (1925-1992), and Helen Frankenthaler (1928-).


Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Contemporary Artists, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Cummings, Paul, Willem de Kooning: Drawings, Paintings, Sculpture, Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, NY), 1983.

Gaugh, Harry F., De Kooning, Abbeville (New York, NY), 1983.

Hall, Lee, Elaine and Bill, Portrait of a Marriage: The Lives of Willem and Elaine de Kooning, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1993.

International Dictionary of Art and Artists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1990.

Lieber, Edward, Willem de Kooning: Reflections in the Studio, Abrams (New York, NY), 2000.

Morris, Catherine, The Essential Willem de Kooning, Cader Books, 1999.

Rodman, Selden, Conversations with Artists, [New York, NY], 1957.

Sandler, Irving, The New York School: The Painters and Sculptors of the Fifties, Icon/Harper and Row (New York, NY), 1978.

Waldman, Diane, De Kooning, Abrams (New York, NY), 1987.

Yard, Sally, Willem de Kooning, Rizzoli (New York, NY), 1997.


PERIODICALS

Artforum International, December, 1993, Barry Schwabsky, "Willem de Kooning," p. 78.

Art in America, February, 1997, Bill Berkson, "As Ever, de Kooning," p. 64.

Artnews, June, 1958, Thomas B. Hess, "Is Today's Artist with or against the Past?"; September, 1972, Harold Rosenberg, interview with de Kooning.

Investor's Business Daily, August 6, 2003, J. Bonasia, "He Was Driven to Abstraction," p. A4.

Knickerbocker, May, 1950, Martha Boudrez, interview with de Kooning.

Location (Easthampton, NY), 1963, David Sylvester, interview with de Kooning.

New Republic, July 4, 1994, Mark Stevens, "The Master of Imperfection: The Iconoclastic Traditionalism of Willem de Kooning," p. 27.

New Yorker, April 4, 1953, pp. 94-96.

New York Times Magazine, January 4, 1998, Michael Kimmelman, "Life Is Short, Art Is Long," pp. 19-23.

Partisan Review, fall, 1957, James T. Valliere, interview with de Kooning.

Smithsonian, April, 1994, Bennett Schiff, "For de Kooning, Painting Has Been 'A Way of Living,'" p. 108.



ONLINE

Slate Online,http://www.slate.msn.com/ (February 27, 1997), Alexi Worth, "Brushed Off: Why Willem de Kooning's Late Works Shouldn't Be."




Obituaries

PERIODICALS

Art in America, May, 1997, p. 29.

Associated Press, March 20, 1997.

Christian Science Monitor, March 24, 1997, p. 14.

Denver Post, March 20, 1997, p. A2.

Detroit Free Press, March 20, 1997, p. 6B.

Economist, March 29, 1997, p. 92.

Los Angeles Times, March 20, 1997; March 21, 1997.

Maclean's, March 31, 1997, p. 15.

Newsweek, March 31, 1997, p. 69.

New York Times, March 20, 1997, A1.

Time, March 31, 1997, p. 87.

Times (London, England), March 20, 1997.

USA Today, March 20, 1997, p. D1.

U.S. News and World Report, March 31, 1997, Miriam Horn, "America's Old Master," p. 16*.

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De Kooning, Willem

DE KOONING, Willem

(b. 24 April 1904 in Rotterdam, The Netherlands; d. 19 March 1997 in East Hampton, Long Island, New York), monumental figure of the abstract expressionist movement in art, which had worldwide influence and changed painting at the middle of the twentieth century.

Willem de Kooning was the youngest child of Leendert de Kooning, a wine and beverage distributor, and Cornelia Nobel, who owned a seaman's bar. When his parents divorced, his mother gained custody of his older sister, Maria; he was awarded to his father, but his mother appealed, and the young de Kooning went to live with her.

At the age of twelve de Kooning was apprenticed to a commercial art and decorating firm, where he worked for four years. Encouraged by its owners, he attended night classes at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Art and Techniques for eight years. The academic training in the Dutch art school taught him a respect for tradition and craft that stayed with him his entire life. He learned designing, carpentry, portrait painting, and sign painting, skills that enabled him to find work wherever he went.

With a friend, in 1926 de Kooning stowed aboard the SS Shelly, working in the engine room and landing on the east coast of the United States, where he made his way to Hoboken, New Jersey. In 1927 he moved to New York City, where he did commercial art jobs and met other artists, including Stuart Davis, David Smith, Arshile Gorky, and Mark Rothko. Among the lofts and studios in and around Greenwich Village, the charismatic de Kooning became the leader whose abstract painting style the other artists strove to emulate.

In December 1943 de Kooning married Elaine Fried, an artist who was also a writer on art. They had an unconventional marriage but were together off and on until Elaine's death in 1989. They had no children, but in 1956 de Kooning fathered a daughter, Lisa, with Joan Ward, an artist with whom he was living at the time.

After his first one-man exhibit at the Charles Egan Gallery in 1948, de Kooning's reputation was established when the art critic Clement Greenberg called him one of the four or five most important painters in the country. He was invited to exhibit at the 1950 and 1954 Venice Biennales, among other major international shows.

His early paintings were essentially abstracted figurative works in shades of soft pink, gray, and green. The subject matter was the male figure. In the late 1940s he explored black-and-white motifs in mixed media and torn paper collage painted in a frenzy of shapes that covered the entire format.

During the 1950s de Kooning began his "Woman" series, perhaps the paintings for which he is most widely known. The visual onslaught of American advertising, which expressed the postwar economic boom in print, billboards, and television, was his springboard for these ferocious, slashing, grinning, big-breasted, sensual, bug-eyed monuments to abstract expressionism. This series is de Kooning's signature work, much as his friend Jackson Pollock's drip paintings and Franz Kline's black-and-white abstractions are theirs.

On 13 March 1961 de Kooning became a United States citizen, and soon after he purchased some land near East Hampton, Long Island, in a locale known as the Springs. He lived in a cottage while he worked on the plans for his new studio.

By 1963 de Kooning was living year-round in the Springs and working in his light-filled studio. He had found it difficult to accept his wealth and status before his move to Long Island. He commented, "I have no need to be celebrated, to shake hands with a lot of people. In the end it's just your friends and your work that count." However, the media beyond the art magazines gave him and his work regular coverage.

Once established in the Springs in 1964 and comfortable with the lakes, marshes, and coastline of Long Island, de Kooning declared he was ready to start a new "Woman" series. In the works of this period he painted women in a softer light. As he declared in 1964, "I'm working on a water series. The figures are floating like reflections in the water. The color is influenced by the natural light. That's what's so good here."

Later in the 1960s de Kooning used the landscape of Long Island as a background for his softer, less ferocious women. He declared that images of nature were inside him, and his women lounged on the grass or in the water. He said, "They are brighter girls now, but they are all the same woman." These de Kooning women are playfully sexual, opened up, legs splayed and inviting voyeurism.

In 1967 de Kooning painted a series called "Women on a Sign." These yeasty, fleshy, erotic paintings carry an in-your-face sense of brutality and a life-affirming sense of iconography. He also painted a 1967 "Man" series. Pushing a squatting, comic, grotesque figure of a male around on the canvas, he painted his subject without the geometric structure of cubism or any recognizable features. A similar style appeared later in his sculptures of the 1970s.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s, with its relaxed social mores and laws regarding obscenity and pornography, affected all areas of pop culture and the arts. The viewer contemplating de Kooning's life-size fleshy figures is initiated into a deliberate erotic engagement. In his later series of 1967, "Women Singing," de Kooning painted women from the media—fashion models, young, thin, and long-legged.

By the end of the 1960s de Kooning was traveling in Europe and Japan and having exhibitions in major museums around the world. He continued to draw figures in various media and completed a number of small bronze sculptures. Honors and awards continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s; prices for his paintings escalated. In 1989 a record price, $20.8 million, was paid for a 1955 painting at a Sotheby's auction.

During the 1980s de Kooning moved away from painting figures and instead painted flat fields of white with ribbons of red, blue, and orange that danced and twisted across the canvas. Critics wondered whether his work was affected by his mental decline from Alzheimer's disease.

On 1 February 1989 Elaine de Kooning died. Ten days later de Kooning's daughter, Lisa de Kooning Villeneuve, and John Eastman filed for appointment as conservators of de Kooning's property on the grounds of his mental decline.

The last titan of the abstract expressionists died at his home at the age of ninety-three. He is buried in Green River Cemetery in East Hampton.

Biographies include three entitled Willem de Kooning, by Thomas B. Hess (1959), Harry F. Gaugh (1983), and Diane Waldman (1988); Judith Zilczer et al., Willem de Kooning from the Hirshhorn Museum Collection (1993); and Edvard Lieber, Willem de Kooning: Reflections in the Studio (2000). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Times (London) (both 20 Mar. 1997).

Rosemarie S. Cardoso

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