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Willem de Kooning

American Painter and Sculptor

Willem de Kooning Photo

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."

Willem de Kooning Signature

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.

Key Ideas

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.
Willem de Kooning at the presentation of the 1968 Talens Prize, Amsterdam

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.

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