Willem de Kooning


Willem de Kooning († March 19, 1997 in East Hampton, Long Island, New York) was a Dutch painter who became an American in 1962. He was one of the most important representatives of abstract expressionism and, along with Jackson Pollock, is considered a pioneer of action painting.

Childhood and youth

Willem de Kooning was the youngest of five children and also the only son of Leendert de Kooning, a wine merchant and beverage manufacturer, and Cornelia Nobel, a barmaid from the north of Rotterdam. His siblings were the eldest sister Maria Cornelia, born in 1899, the twins Cornelia and Adriana, born in 1901 and deceased the same year, and the second Cornelia, born in 1902 and deceased a year later. The parents separated when Willem was just two years old, and divorced a year and a half later, in 1907. The boy lived with his father for the first three years, then with his mother and stepfather. The young Willem developed an early love-hate relationship with his mother Cornelia, known as Cora, who worked in a harbor bar and had frequently changing male acquaintances, whom she brought home with her. This love-hate relationship reflected significantly on his ambivalent image of women in his work, as in his life: Cora was considered possessive, stubborn, manipulative, and devouring in love: qualities that were later reflected in the adult Willem de Kooning.

Designer apprenticeship

In 1916 de Kooning began an apprenticeship in the studio of the Gidding brothers with the graphic artist Jaap Gidding (1887-1955), who in 1920 got him a job as an interior decorator with Bernard Romein, the chief decorator of the Rotterdam department store Cohn & Donay. Influenced by the novel paintings of the newly founded De Stijl group of artists around Piet Mondrian, he began taking evening classes at the Rotterdam Academie voor Beeldende Kunsten en Technische Wetenschappen (today”s Willem de Kooning Academie) until 1924, where he was finally introduced to classical painting techniques as a master student of Johannes Gerardus Heijberg (Heyberg).

Art Study

Around 192425 he went on a study trip to Belgium with his friends Wim Klop and Benno Randolfi, where he visited, among other places, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels and conducted studies at the Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp. At this time he was concerned with both the current contemporary art movements in Germany and Paris and with the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. He was fascinated by the rapidly growing “New World”, which seemed to him not so cramped and full of possibilities. After two unsuccessful attempts, on July 18, 1926, he illegally embarked in Belgium for the United States on the British freighter “SS Shelley” with the help of an acquaintance named Leo Cohan. De Kooning hid in the ship”s engine room during the crossing.

De Kooning later explained in an interview in 1960 to the English art critic David Sylvester that “his spontaneous decision to emigrate to the United States was less connected with the goal of becoming a well-known artist than with the simple fact that one could earn good money there with hard work.”

America, friendship with Arshile Gorky

On August 15, 1926, de Kooning arrived in Newport News, Virginia. Continuing on to Boston, he acquired his immigration papers and settled first in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he did odd jobs as a painter and decorator and carpenter. In 1927, de Kooning moved to New York, where he spent the next eight years working as a commercial artist, interior decorator, sign painter for store signage, or as a facade painter for nightclubs. In 192930 he met art critic John Graham, gallery owner Sidney Janis, and artists Stuart Davis, David Smith, and Arshile Gorky. Gorky, with whom de Kooning rented a joint studio, soon became a mentor and eventually one of his closest artist friends.

The depression years, beginning of the artistic career

By 1934 at the latest, de Kooning, who had previously painted only occasionally on weekends, had abandoned all reservations about a freelance artistic career. Encouraged by the artist aid programs initiated by Franklin D. Roosevelt, which were intended as a job creation measure during the Great Depression, he was able to participate in the WPA Federal Art Project and devote himself exclusively to artistic painting. Numerous designs for murals were created for the WPA-Federal-Art-Project, some of which were never realized, however, because de Kooning had to leave the project again as early as July 1937 due to his lack of U.S. citizenship (de Kooning did not receive his naturalization certificate until 1962). “But that one year,” de Kooning said, “I had such a fantastic feeling that I came to a new attitude. I decided to paint and do jobs only on the side.” That same year, de Kooning was commissioned to execute part of the mural Medicine for the Hall of Pharmacy at the 1939 World”s Fair in New York, bringing art critics for the first time to the attention of the new artist, whose paintings were so completely different in their restlessness from the hitherto familiar, matter-of-fact figurativeness of outgoing American Realism.

Elaine, Black Paintings

Also in 1937, at the American Artists School, he met Elaine Fried, an art student 14 years his junior, with whom they would soon begin a partnership that was as passionate as it was changeable, and which was permeated by a lifelong obsession with alcoholism, financial hardship, love affairs, quarrels, and separations. In 1939 Elaine moved into his New York studio; the two were married on December 9, 1943, at which time de Kooning was working on his first series of portraits of standing or seated men such as Two Men Standing, Man, and Seated Figure (Classic Male) some of which he combined with self-portraits as in Portrait with Imaginary Brother (all c. 1938-39). At this time, de Kooning”s work was still very much oriented toward Gorky”s Surrealist imagery and possessed the post-Cubist influence of Picasso. This changed only when de Kooning made the acquaintance of the painter Franz Kline, six years his junior, who had also begun under the figurative-cubist influence of American Realism and had now found his way to a monochrome dynamic. Franz Kline, who died at an early age, was one of de Kooning”s closest artist friends. Kline”s influence is evident in de Kooning”s calligraphic black paintings of this period. (cf. → Black Paintings).


His liaison with Elaine at the same time may also have influenced his first series of Woman paintings: Elaine was working on similar subjects at the time. Around 19391940, de Kooning”s figurative works blended with Joan Miró”s amoeba-like formal language. By the mid-1940s, de Kooning”s visual language was continually changing: series and an exploration of abstraction and the ever-changing arrangement of human figures in the “process of dissolution” would soon become the focus of his work, with Picasso”s monumental works Les Demoiselles d”Avignon (1907) and Guernica (1937), among others, likely serving as models for him. He elevated the “non-completion” of the individual picture to a serial principle, which he would implement from 1947 to 1949 in his second Woman cycle. The work Pink Angels (ca. 1945), as an artistic homage to Chaim Soutine”s Woman in Pink from 1924, is a characteristic panel painting by de Kooning from this phase.

Jackson Pollock and the first generation of the “New York School

Around 1942, Willem de Kooning met Jackson Pollock and his later wife Lee Krasner at the New York artists” meeting place The Club on 39th Street, which, along with Cedars Tavern, united the “first generation” of the New York School. In addition to de Kooning”s partner Elaine and painter friends such as Arshile Gorky, Stuart Davis, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still, the club also included the literary figures John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O”Hara.

The same year saw the group exhibition American and French Paintings at the Mc Millen Gallery, where de Kooning and Pollock, Stuart Davis and Lee Krasner were joined by the Europeans Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso and the Fauvist Henri Matisse. With the choleric Jackson Pollock, de Kooning was bound by a friendship sealed under bouts of alcoholism that ended in rivalry in the late 1940s. In 1948, de Kooning had his first highly acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful solo exhibition at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York; the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) purchased the monochrome work Painting (1948). In the same year, his artist friend Arshile Gorky committed suicide, and de Kooning briefly interrupted painting. At the invitation of Josef Albers, he began teaching fine arts at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he met musician John Cage. Financially down, de Kooning ended up painting with cheap lacquer paints in the late 1940s.

Gestures and action, International success

Despite all the artistic competition, de Kooning and Pollock inspired each other and even “prospered” from each other in the material language: while Pollock resorted to de Kooning”s black radiator paints and increasingly reduced the colorfulness in his work, de Kooning ventured for the first time into large formats in the style of Pollock with paintings such as Attic (1949) and Excavation (1950) and exploded the painting grounds prescribed by Cubism and Surrealism. The gestural painting, however, de Kooning developed himself and does not go back to Pollock”s actionist dripping. De Kooning”s works of this period refer in their tradition rather to the German informal painter Hans Hofmann. Art critic Clement Greenberg, as respected as he was controversial, effusively saw in them “the most important artists of the 20th century,” and so it was no surprise that both were chosen by MoMA”s founding director, Alfred H. Barr, in June 1950 as the protagonists of action painting to make the decisive contribution to modern American art at the 25th Venice Biennale in 1950. De Kooning sent the work Excavation to the Biennale, which was subsequently purchased by the Art Institute of Chicago. On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of American painting, the artist received the Logan Medal, worth 2000 US dollars, in addition to the purchase price of the painting. The Biennale marked the international breakthrough for de Kooning and at the same time another turning point in his oeuvre. In 1951, de Kooning participated in the highly regarded 9th Street Art Exhibition (“The Ninth Street Show”), which marked the beginning of the post-war New York avant-garde.

“More Women”, radicalization of the visual language

Despite his sudden fame, the artist, once again driven by the doubt of artistic self-discovery, eluded any stylistic categorization and began to drastically radicalize his pictorial language in the third Women cycle in the same year as the biennial. In this provocative figurative cycle, de Kooning broke with all the taboos of the time and celebrated the female figure with violent impasto strokes as a buxom, fleshy demon deformed into the grotesque, which seems to mock the viewer with a malicious grimace. The exhibition of the Woman paintings at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1953 consequently turned into a tangible cultural scandal that shocked the prudish USA of the 1950s. De Kooning remained largely unaffected by this controversy over his work, which was in part condemned by the press as “vulgar and vulgar,” and in subsequent years created numerous series of paintings of a similar character on even larger formats. MoMA purchased several works from the series, including Woman I (195052), for the 27th Biennial in 1954. Works by Ben Shahn and 27 paintings and drawings by de Kooning were among those shown.

In 1955 Willem de Kooning left his wife Elaine and moved in with the artist Joan Ward. On January 29, 1956, their daughter Johanna Lisbeth “Lisa” was born. In the same year, on August 11, Jackson Pollock was killed in a car accident. From this point on, the female motif suddenly disappeared from de Kooning”s works and was replaced by Expressionist city scenes and landscapes.

Abstract Landscapes, Retreat to Long Island

From 1957 to 1963, de Kooning devoted himself almost exclusively to gestural-abstract landscape paintings in increasingly bright colors, which he usually named after places, streets, or traffic signs. Apparently, in this abstract allegory of a car trip or a “journey through time” he hinted at his own retreat from the big city with the search for (his own) past and origins. De Kooning received similar travel impressions that Jack Kerouac sought to realize literarily or Robert Frank photographically, and worked in youthful memories of Dutch seascapes on his long drives to the southern tip of Long Island. De Kooning divided these series into Abstract Urban Landscapes (1955-58), Abstract Parkway Landscapes (1957-61), and Abstract Pastoral Landscapes (1960-63) Typical works of this period include Gotham News (1955-56) , Backyard on 10th Street (1956) or July 4th (1957) and Montauk Highway (1958).

In keeping with the genesis of these series, the artist actually retired from the late 1950s to Springs near East Hampton on Long Island, which was a popular artists” colony at the time. In 1959, de Kooning purchased a country house there, which the skilled craftsman converted into a spacious residential studio in the following years and finally moved into in 1963. Very likely he fled the hustle and bustle of the rapidly growing New York art business, for his exhibition of Abstract Parkway Landscapes at the Sidney Janis Gallery was a great commercial success and briefly made him the new “star” of the New York art scene; in addition, his contribution to documenta II in Kassel attracted the increased attention of the European art market. As with his first participation in the Biennale, De Kooning was again concerned that he would have to fulfill a certain expectation on the part of the public or that he would have to meet the “terminology-friendly” reviews of the art critics, above all Greenberg. In addition, with Robert Rauschenberg, followed by Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and many others, a new generation of artists came to the fore who, for their part, reacted in a representational way to urbanization, advertising, and consumerism: the age of Pop Art was dawning. Rauschenberg “acknowledged” this ironically by simply erasing a work by de Kooning, whom he revered as an “artistic father figure,” in 1959.

Rom, Frauen auf dem Lande

De Kooning spent the winter of 195960 in Rome, where he visited the painter Piero Dorazio, among others. Beginning in 1960, de Kooning finally began the elaborate expansion of his house on Long Island, which he converted into a glass studio according to his own plans and did not complete until 1969. He ended his monumental Abstract Landscapes with the work Pastorale, still in New York, and returned to figurative painting with the fourth Woman series, which, however, was closer in execution to the Landscapes than the earlier Women series. De Kooning titled this series, which ran from 1965 to 1972, Women in the Country. Characteristic works from this period are Women Singing I-III (1965-66) .

Long Island

In March 1963, de Kooning had moved into his house on Long Island. The artist felt the move as a liberation and said he had ” started all over again. Somehow I felt good when I was close to the sea. That”s where most of my paintings came from.” The motif of the “woman in an abstract landscape” was something de Kooning returned to again and again in his later work, albeit in calmer, lighter color schemes. In 1964, de Kooning was honored by U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the same year he participated in documenta III in Kassel. From April 8 to March 2, 1965, the first Willem de Kooning retrospective in the U.S. was held at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Europe, sculptures, alcohol problems

Organized by the New York Museum of Modern Art, de Kooning”s first extensive mural in Europe took place in 196869; with the exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Willem de Kooning traveled to the country of his birth for the first time since 1926; for the exhibition at the Tate Gallery, London, he met with Francis Bacon. Further stations of the painter in Europe were Paris and Rome. Inspired by his trip to Europe, de Kooning first sought sculptural realization of his work with bronze sculptures beginning in 196970. Beginning in the early 1970s, he withdrew more and more on hour-long excursions to the seclusion of Long Island”s coastal regions, experimenting in the studio with translating the figure into drawings, lithographs, and sculptures, and increasingly plagued by creative slumps and self-doubt. De Kooning, who had been a heavy drinker all his life and often drank himself into a stupor, was now increasingly struggling existentially with alcoholism, but this did not diminish his creative power: As if in an explosive, liberating frenzy, in the years 1975 to 1977 he painted in a very short time numerous large formats with unbroken, colorful impasto abstractions that constantly revolve around his favorite themes: Eroticism, women, and landscapes. Critics saw this late work, driven by restlessness, as de Kooning”s artistic balance sheet. In 1978 his wife Elaine, from whom he had not divorced, returned to him, tried to get him away from alcohol and cared for him until the end of her life.

Illness, late work and death

In the early 1980s, the artist increasingly deteriorated: de Kooning fell ill with Alzheimer”s disease, and his health deteriorated drastically, so that he soon had to be supported in the studio by assistants. On the occasion of the artist”s 80th birthday, at the turn of the year 1983-1984 the Whitney Museum of American Art showed the large retrospective Willem de Kooning: Drawings, Paintings, Sculpture, which in the following months made stops at the Akademie der Künste, Berlin, and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris; de Kooning received the National Medal of Arts from U.S. President Ronald Reagan for his life”s work. On February 1, 1989, Elaine de Kooning died, and Willem”s daughter Lisa and her partner, attorney John L. Eastman, took over the business affairs for her father, who was becoming progressively frail. Eastman, Linda McCartney”s brother, would later become vice president of the Willem de Kooning Foundation. That same year, 1989, Interchange, a 1955 painting, sold at auction at Sotheby”s for $20.8 million. This sum was the highest ever paid for the work of a living artist up to that time. In the same year, de Kooning was awarded the Praemium Imperiale.

Although de Kooning was no longer able to recognize family members or closest friends in the last years of his life, he still had a productive creative period in the 1980s until his death, during which he painted more than 300 oil paintings. While the late work is denied artistic value by some critics, others speak of a “miraculous recovery of concentration and ambition” that led to a solution of long-standing problems and a renewal of his art. In the process, de Kooning developed the style characteristic of his later work, which, in contrast to the dense compositions and complex colors of earlier creative periods, is characterized by simple forms and bright colors and is sometimes compared to works by Piet Mondrian.

Willem de Kooning died on March 19, 1997 at the age of 92 in his studio in SpringsEast Hampton on Long Island.

The Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam is named after him.



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