Willem de Kooning
American Painter and Sculptor
Rotterdam, The Netherlands
East Hampton, New York
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
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.
Important Art by Willem de Kooning
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.
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.
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.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Willem de Kooning
- de Kooning: American MasterBy Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan
- Willem de Kooning: A Way of LivingBy Judith Zilczer
- de Kooning: A RetrospectiveBy John Elderfield
- Between Sense and de KooningBy Richard Shiff
- de Kooning Paints a PictureBy Thomas Hess / ARTnews / March 1953
- The Indomitable de KooningBy Curtis Bill Pepper / New York Times Magazine / November 20, 1983
- De Kooning from Z to A: Meetings and ConvergencesBy Roberta Smith / New York Times / April 30, 2004
- Spotlight Essay: Willem de KooningBy John J. Curley / Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum / April 2008
- Unfurling a Life of Creative ExuberanceBy Holland Cotter / New York Times / September 15, 2011
- In Focus: Women Singing II by Willem de KooningBy Valerie Hellstein / Tate Research Publication / September 2017