Willem de Kooning - Biography and Legacy
American Painter and Sculptor
Rotterdam, The Netherlands
East Hampton, New York
Biography of Willem de Kooning
Childhood and Early Training
Willem de Kooning was born in Rotterdam in the Netherlands in 1904, and his parents divorced when he was three. His mother, Cornelia Nobel, ran a bar and largely raised de Kooning on her own. He found his artistic vocation early and left school when he was twelve to apprentice at a commercial design and decorating firm. He then went on to study at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques. During this period, de Kooning 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 enamored with 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 River 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 these early years. He valued the example of Stuart Davis' urbane modernism as well as John Graham's ideas, but Arshile Gorky was the biggest stylistic influence on de Kooning. He remembered, "I met a lot of artists, but then I met Gorky." Gorky had spent years working through Picasso's Cubism and then Miró's Surrealism before reaching his own mature style, and in subsequent years, de Kooning would follow a similar path; haunting the halls of the Metropolitan Museum as well as the Museum of Modern Art. 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 to 1937, and for the first time, like many American artists, he was able to focus his attention entirely on fine art instead of commercial painting. His network of friends expanded to include photographer Rudy Burckhardt, dance critic Edwin Denby, and art critic Harold Rosenberg, who became one of de Kooning's most ardent supporters, and in 1936, he was included in the show New Horizons in American Art at MoMA.
Men were often the subjects of his pictures during 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 in particular - which encouraged a habit of scraping down the paint 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 a student; she became his wife in 1943, and in time, she would become a prominent critic and Abstract Expressionist in her own right. The two shared a tempestuous, alcohol-fueled relationship, and their marriage did not conform to traditional standards, each engaging in extramarital affairs. After several affairs, de Kooning had a child, Lisa, with one of his girlfriends, Joan Ward, and he and Elaine separated in the mid-1950s, though never officially divorced.
In the mid-1940s, De Kooning began a series of black and white abstractions, reportedly because he could not afford expensive pigments and had to turn to cheaper household enamels. With the pared-down color palette and the radical flattening of pictorial space, these abstractions, shown at the Charles Egan Gallery in 1948, portended the rise of Abstract Expressionism and were instrumental in establishing his reputation. He continued to work on them until the end of the decade, eventually allowing color to re-enter into later works such as Excavation (1950).
De Kooning is probably best known for his paintings of women. He worked on them 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 "de Kooning Paints a Picture," in which he described the process of the picture's creation as a voyage that involved hundreds of revisions, several abandonments and restarts, 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 paintings 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 seemed interested in suppressing narrative content and figuration in their paintings. Now de Kooning had reintroduced the figure, and some commentators - prominent critic Clement Greenberg included - felt it was a step backward.
While many saw de Kooning's figuration as an abrupt reversal, de Kooning always painted both figuratively and abstractly at the same time, and he dismissed these criticisms of returning to the figure. When asked about the controversy in 1960 by art critic David Sylvester, de Kooning replied, "In a way, if you pick up some paint with your brush and make somebody's nose with it, this is rather ridiculous when you think of it, theoretically or philosophically. It's really absurd to make an image, like a human image, with paint today, when you think about it, since we have this problem of doing or not doing it. But then all of a sudden it was even more absurd not to do it. So I fear that I'll have to follow my desires." De Kooning felt that one should not restrict oneself to certain ways of painting, since at the end of the day it's all paint on canvas, whether figural or abstract, so why not paint whatever one wants.
De Kooning's pictures were also controversial due to the expressive distortion of the figures and earned him the reputation for being a misogynist. Contrarian 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." While many see something sinister in de Kooning's intentions, the pictures were, in part, inspired by fashionable women of the time and images of women in popular magazines. De Kooning explained to one interviewer, "In a way I feel that the Women of the '50s were a failure. I see the horror in them now, but I didn't mean it then. I wanted them to be funny and not look so sad and downtrodden like the women in the paintings in the '30s so I made them satiric and monstrous, like sibyls." Others defended the series as archetypes inspired by the work of ancient Mesopotamian idols, Old Masters, and modern artists. One of the most erudite among the New York School, de Kooning was steeped in art history, and he regarded Ingres's Odalisque (1814) as one of the major antecedents for the series; however he was also cautious about tracing the series' genealogy, saying "I don't paint with ideas of art in mind. I see something that excites me. It becomes my content."
De Kooning was a member of the Eighth Street Artists' Club, which met weekly to discuss art and ideas, and he also became a hard-drinking fixture at the Cedar Tavern. 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 Jackson 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.'"
Despite the controversies of the early 1950s, de Kooning's reputation continued to grow throughout the decade, and by the end of it, he found himself financially stable for the first time, buying land to build a studio in Springs, the small hamlet in East Hampton, where Jackson Pollock had lived and where other artists had flocked.
Later Years and Death
Thomas Hess described the settings for de Kooning's Women as "no-environment," indicating their ambiguous space, and his larger abstractions from mid-1950s seemed part and parcel of the gritty urban environment in which de Kooning lived. By the late 1950s, however, he was beginning to show interest in a new type of scenery. He began a series of Abstract Parkway Landscapes (1957-61), which were based on the landscape as seen from a moving car, and the Abstract Pastoral Landscapes (1960-66), explored his new environs in a more rural setting close to the water.
His personal life became correspondingly more settled. In 1962, 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, while he was finishing his 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. They were characterized by bold, simple gestures similar to those of Franz Kline, with whom de Kooning had been very close. And although they have attracted less notoriety than the Women series, they proved highly influential, particularly on the work of the Californian painter Richard Diebenkorn's Ocean Park series.
On Long Island, de Kooning continued to paint women, but he also explored new avenues. In 1969 during a trip to Rome, de Kooning took up sculpture for the first time, and throughout the 1970s, he created works whose lumpy clay modeling was carried over into their cast bronze form. In 1968, de Kooning returned to Holland for the first time in forty-two years for his own retrospective at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, organized by his friend Thomas Hess, which was also seen in London, New York, and Chicago.
Living and painting on Long Island throughout the 1980s, de Kooning created large abstract works in bright tones with simpler, more restrained 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. In the late-1970s, Elaine de Kooning returned to her husband's life to try to make him healthy after decades of hard drinking. By the end of the decade, de Kooning's memory began to be severely impaired, and he seemed to be suffering from Alzheimer's-like dementia. After Elaine de Kooning died in 1989, Willem came under the guardianship of his daughter, Lisa, until his death in 1997 at the age of 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 argued, however, that - certainly as far as the Abstract Expressionists were concerned - creativity sprung more from intuition than intellect and that memory loss would likely not affect his ingrained motor functions such as using a paintbrush.
The Legacy of Willem de Kooning
While Jackson Pollock has been extolled as the most important and influential Abstract Expressionist and influenced the likes of Allan Kaprow, many young painters at the time found that appropriating Pollock's process of painting tended to produce paintings that looked like Pollock's, but de Kooning's use of color and gestural application of paint, as well as his disregard for divisions between abstraction and figuration, however, inspired countless painters and led critic Clement Greenberg to decry what he termed the "Tenth Street touch" that de Kooning spawned. With de Kooning's example, artists such as Larry Rivers and Grace Hartigan took figurative painting in new directions, and artists such as Al Held and Jack Whitten continued experimenting freely in abstraction. Even artists who attempted to distance themselves from the existential rhetoric surrounding de Kooning, including Robert Rauschenberg, who infamously took one of de Kooning's drawings, erased it, and eventually exhibited it as his own artwork (Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953)), found lessons in de Kooning's work.
The lush exuberance of his works from the 1960s and 1970s as well as the elegance of the paintings from the 1980s may not have received the same critical acclaim as his earlier work, but 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 painter Cecily Brown is inconceivable without his example, and Amy Sillman has also recalibrated the macho histrionics associated with Abstract Expressionism in her contemporary paintings.