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.
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 on Willem de Kooning
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).