Willem de Kooning
Biography of Abstract Expressionist Painter, Gesturalism.
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Seated Woman (1944)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
By Willem de Kooning. This is an
early prototype of his Woman series.

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)

Contents

Biography
Art Training
Emigrates to America
Abstract Expressionism
Woman Paintings
Conceptual Art: Erased De Kooning Drawing
1960s: Decline and Sculpture
Final Period
Retrospectives and Awards

For analysis of works by gesturalist painters like Willem de Kooning,
please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).



Woman And Bicycle (1952)
Whitney Museum of American Art.

BEST MODERN PAINTING
For more expressionist works like,
those produced by de Kooning, see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.


Woman V (1952)
By Willem de Kooning.
National Gallery Of Australia.

Biography

A giant of 20th century American art who occupied the area between abstract art and representationalism, the Dutch-born artist Willem de Kooning was the most consistent and longest-living contributor to the postwar Abstract Expressionism movement, and an iconic figure in avant-garde art. Famous for his brutal brushwork, impasto textures and clashing colours, he exemplified the "gestural painting" style of the New York School, along with other abstract artists like Franz Kline (1910-62), Jackson Pollock (1912-56) and Lee Krasner (1908-84), the founders of "action painting". His most famous works are his paintings of women, such as Woman I (1950-2, Museum of Modern Art, New York), one of a series of six numbered 'Woman' paintings. He was first drawn to the depiction of women because he wanted to engage with what he perceived was a longstanding tradition dating back to Titian's Venus of Urbino (1538, Uffizi, Florence). These 'women' pictures illustrated his desire to maintain an overtly figurative element in his painting, in contrast to the gesturalist Pollock, as well as the wholly abstract Colour Field Painting group of Clyfford Still (1904-80), Mark Rothko (1903-70), and Barnett Newman (1905-70), the versatile Robert Motherwell (1915-91), the lyrical "Abstract Impressionist" Philip Guston (1913-80) and the "Hard-Edge" painter Frank Stella (b.1936).

De Kooning was primarily influenced by Cubism and Surrealism and in particular by the artists Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Arshile Gorky (1904-48). Among his other famous works include Woman and Bicycle (1952, Whitney Museum of American Art); Woman III (1953, Private Collection); Marilyn Monroe (1954, Private Collection); Police Gazette (1955, Private Collection); Door to the River (1960, Whitney Museum of American Art, NY); Two Figures in Landscape (1968, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra); Red Man with Moustache (1971, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid); and Untitled XII (1983, Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis). Throughout his career his style changed considerably and - being often dissatisfied with his works - he destroyed many of his canvases. Even so, he is regarded by some art critics as one of the great abstract painters of the modern era.


Woman III (1953)
This oil painting was reputedly
sold privately in 2006, for $137 million.

MODERN ARTISTS
For a list of painters like
De Kooning, see:
Modern Artists.

WORLDS TOP ARTISTS
Best Artists of All Time.

Art Training

Born in Rotterdam, de Kooning took night classes at the Academy of Art (Academie voor Beeldende Kunsten en Technische Wetenschappen) for eight years between 1916 and 1924, while he completed his daytime apprenticeship with a commercial art and decorating company. At the Academy he studied applied art as well as fine art painting. This traditional academic training helped him to master the art of drawing, and he was capable of creating the most beautiful representational art. During the first half of the 1920s he worked as an assistant to the art director of a Rotterdam department store, before spending 2 more years studying art in Brussels and Antwerp (1924-6).

BEST ABSTRACT ART
For a list of the seminal
styles/periods, see:
Abstract Art Movements.

EXPENSIVE ART
For a list of the highest prices, see:
Top 10 Most Expensive Paintings.

Emigrates to America

In 1926 he sailed to America, as a stowaway on a British ship. After stopping briefly in New Jersey, where he earned money as a house painter, he eventually settled in New York in 1927, where he supported himself as a painter and decorator, and created pictures in the evening.

Abstract Expressionism: Gesturalism

During the 1930s, De Kooning executed a number of mural paintings for the Federal Arts Project - where he met Harold Rosenberg, the famous art critic of the 1960s and 70s - before devoting himself full-time to art, in 1936. His work started off representational, but gradually as his colours heightened, a new style of abstraction began to emerge, influenced by Picasso's Cubism as well as Surrealism. Like the immigrant painter Arshile Gorky, with whom he shared a studio, De Kooning tried to synthesize the flatness of Cubism with the energy of Surrealism. In 1938 he began a series of male figures, while simultaneously starting a series of abstract paintings. Too poor to buy proper artist paints for his oil painting, he used black and white enamels. In 1948, he had his first one-man show, at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York, in which he exhibited his black and white abstracts, painted in an extremely energetic style. The show established him as one of the leaders, along with Jackson Pollock, of the gesturalist wing of the Abstract Expressionist Painting movement. (For a comparison of styles, see: Jackson Pollock's paintings 1940-56). In 1950 the Chicago Museum of Modern Art purchased his large composition, Excavation, the same year that he began teaching at the Yale School of Art.

Women Paintings

During the early 1950s he focused on painting women, creating an exciting balance and tension in his works: between uncontrolled freedom and conscious control, between aggression and beauty and between abstraction and figurative. His women have exaggerated breasts and hips, and many critics felt that he was brutalizing the human form, with his slashing brushstrokes and dripping paint - all in total contrast to the traditional representation of women throughout the history of art as sensual, goddesses. However, each work was planned and carefully executed, its composition built up with streaks of thick impastoed paint in clashing colours, and it is now generally considered that he produced his best work between 1950 and 1963. His most famous works from this period include The Woman Paintings I to VI (1950-2); Woman and Bicycle (1952, Whitney Museum of American Art); and his Corps de Dame series.

 

Conceptual Art: Erased de Kooning Drawing

In a reflection of Willem de Kooning's status as one of the most famous artists in America, in 1953, Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) used one of de Kooning's sketches to create one of the first works of conceptual art, entitled: Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953). The work raised interesting questions about the nature of art. It now resides in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. De Kooning's influence also extended to European artists like the Dutch abstract painter Karel Appel (1921-2006).

In the late 1950s and early 1960s de Kooning's works became nearly pure abstract. Examples include Bolton Landing (1957) and Door to the River (1960). He also painted abstract landscapes and parkways.

1960s: Decline and Sculpture

In 1963 De Kooning moved to Long Island, where the light and water caused him to modify his painting and create a new style of landscape painting with lighter colours and less frenzied brushwork. However, some art critics maintain that after 1963 de Kooning lost control and direction, turning out work with flabby colours and splodgy decoration. In any event, from the mid-60s onwards, he took up sculpture, and in 1969 produced his first statue, modeled in clay and later cast in bronze.

Final Period

He followed this up in 1975 with a new series of dense, richly coloured abstract paintings, and later, with a series of mostly white calligraphic-style compositions. His last paintings are generally viewed as far from his best works, mainly due to the fact he developed Alzheimer's disease and was recovering from a life of alcoholism. Other critics insist that these works have yet to be truly assessed and are in fact boldly prophetic. De Kooning died in Long Island in 1997 at the grand old age of 92.

Retrospectives and Awards

In 1968 the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam held a retrospective of his work, while in 1974 the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis held a show of his drawings and sculpture and the Guggenheim Museum in New York held an exhibition in 1978. In 1979 he received the Andrew W. Mellon Prize which resulted in an exhibition at the Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh.

Today De Kooning is considered a major influence in the development of modern art, especially semi-abstract art, and his paintings sell for huge sums. His works can be seen in some of the best art museums around the world, notably the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York.

 

• For more biographies of other Abstract Expressionist artists, see: 20th Century Painters.
• For information about abstract painting, see: Homepage.


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