What Should I Know about Artist Willem de Kooning?
Few Artists Have Been as influential as Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning
The twentieth century saw the emergence of many great abstract artists – Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Sam Francis, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, Helen Frankenthaler and many others, but perhaps the best of this illustrious bunch was Willem de Kooning, whose paintings from the 1970s through the 1990s, commanded the highest prices of any other living American artist.
A handsome, personable fellow, “Bill” de Kooning was also very much the quotable artist. Here are a few of his most famous quotes: "Flesh was the reason oil painting was invented"; "Style is a fraud. I always felt that the Greeks were hiding behind their columns"; "Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure. I always seem to be wrapped in the melodrama of vulgarity."
De Kooning’s artistic output also rivaled that of other icons of modern art - Picasso, Monet, Dali and Duchamp. So let’s review the career of Willem de Kooning and find out why he may have been the most important abstract artist of the twentieth century.
Willem de Kooning was born in 1904 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. He was the youngest of five children; his father was a wine merchant, his mother a barmaid. In 1916, Bill began an apprenticeship in graphic design; then, in 1920, he became an interior designer for Cohn & Donay in Rotterdam. Later, while being influenced by De Stijl, as painted by Piet Mondrian, he began taking art classes at what would later become the Willem de Kooning Academy.
In 1926, in need of money and growing interested in the contemporary art world in the U.S., de Kooning, even though he had no travel documents, hopped aboard a British cargo ship in Brussels, Belgium and sailed to the New World. Once he earned his entry papers, he settled in Hoboken, New Jersey and worked as a house painter. He soon became acquainted with artists such as Arshile Gorky, Stuart Davis and David Smith. Back then, he could only speak one word of English – “yes.”
During the Great Depression, de Kooning, now thinking of becoming a professional artist, participated in the WPA Federal Art Project. Unfortunately, once the authorities discovered that he wasn’t an American citizen, he had to leave the project. Nevertheless, Bill’s career as an artist would soon get underway, as he subsequently worked as a mural artist for the Hall of Pharmacy exhibit in the 1939 World’s Fair.
By the way, Bill became an American citizen in 1962.
Also keep in mind that all quotes in this article come from the book, Willem de Kooning: Content as a Glimpse by Barbara Hess, published in 2004.
New York Art Scene
Now living in New York City, de Kooning met Elaine Fried, with whom he would develop both a professional and personal relationship. The two were married in December 1943. At this time, de Kooning produced portrait paintings such as Standing Man (1942) and Portrait of Rudolph Burckhardt (1939). Since Bill was a skillful illustrator, he had no trouble drawing figures, a prime example of which was the pencil drawing, Reclining nude (1938).
De Kooning also began painting portraits of women, though these were much more abstract than the ones he did with male subjects. Excellent examples of this work were Seated Woman (1940) and Pink Lady (1944).
Interestingly, in 1936, de Kooning became associated with members of the American Abstract Artists, though he never officially became a member of the group. He wanted to remain independent so he could paint whatever he wanted, including figures, which abstract artists generally eschew.
In the middle to late 1940s, de Kooning began producing paintings that would include little if any representational aspects, figurative or otherwise. A great example of this work was Still life (1945). Then in the late 1940s Bill produced some so-called black paintings such as Black Friday (1948). These works were done entirely in black and white, for no other reason than Bill couldn’t afford to buy colored paint! In 1983, Elaine de Kooning wrote:
Bill had his first one-man show at the Egan Gallery in April of 1948, the month I began writing reviews for Art News. Nothing sold from Bill’s show, and my reviews brought in only two dollars apiece. We were looking forward to the summer with trepidation. We were penniless with no prospects.
About this time, Jackson Pollock, the hard-drinking, fractious artist, was churning out his famous drip paintings. De Kooning and Pollock became friends and drinking buddies. But de Kooning thought Pollock’s work was more Surrealism than abstract, so they had their share of arguments. Incidentally, Pollock said de Kooning was “a damned good painter, but he never finishes a painting.”
At any rate, both artists became perhaps the greatest artists of the style that came to be known as Abstract Expressionism. Incidentally, de Kooning produced some paintings that were similar to Pollock’s style, two of which were Asheville (1948) and Excavation (1950).
Controversial “Women” Series
In the late 1940s and early ‘50s, de Kooning produced a series of paintings that shook up the art world. Seemingly influenced by Picasso’s Cubism and Matisse’s Fauvism, the forerunners of this group of paintings were Woman (1948) and Study for “Marilyn Monroe” (1951). Many people – critics, art experts and laypeople alike - thought these paintings demeaned women, at the very least and/or that they were representations of women who had been mutilated or even murdered. James Fitzsimmons in Art magazine wrote that de Kooning was involved “in a terrible struggle with the female force . . . a bloody hand to hand combat” with a “female personification of all that is unacceptable, perverse and infantile in ourselves.”
Reacting to this criticism, de Kooning later remarked, “Certain artists and critics attacked me for painting the Women, but I felt that this was their problem, not mine.”
When de Kooning was asked by an interviewer in 1956 if his Women series said anything about his sexual identity, he suggested, “Maybe in that earlier phase I was painting the woman in me. Art isn’t a wholly masculine occupation, you know. I’m aware that some critics would take this to be an admission of latent homosexuality. If I painted beautiful women, would that make me a nonhomosexual? I like beautiful women. In the flesh; even the models in the magazines. Women irritate me sometimes. I painted that irritation in the Women series. That’s all.”
As for de Kooning’s technique, while producing many of his paintings for his Women series, he would cover the wet paintings with newspaper in order to delay the drying process, so he could more easily change them. But, when the paper was removed, headlines and advertisements often had transferred to the oil paint on the canvas. And Bill often left this transfer as it was, approving of the spontaneity of this “collage” effect.
Astonishingly, other abstract expressionists such as Pollock left objects such as cigarette butts and bottle caps in their artworks. Indeed, the times were changing in the art world.
At any rate, the Women series made Willem de Kooning internationally famous and he would soon become perhaps the most influential artist in the world. Needless to point out, he could now afford to buy all the paint he wanted.
By the way, painters such as de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman became known as members of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism (the First Generation, in fact, as they would eventually be called). Art critic Clement Greenberg called these artists “the most important artists of the twentieth century.”
Rise of Pop Art
Nevertheless, by the early 1960s, Abstract Expressionism gradually became passé, at least in the minds of many. Simply put, images became important again, even mundane ones such as the labels on soup cans and the American flag. Enter Pop Art. Artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg achieved rapid renown and financial success, especially compared to that of the Abstract Expressionists, for whom such popularity and monetary gain had taken many years to garner.
De Kooning Relocates to Long Island
Perhaps reacting to the decline of Abstract Expressionism, as well as the onset of middle age, Bill, now well into his fifties, moved in 1963 from New York City to The Springs on Long Island, where Pollock and others artists had moved in the 1950s. Enjoying the splendor of nature and the quiet country life, Bill began painting landscapes such as Pastorale (1963) and Two Figures in a Landscape (1967).
Interestingly, de Kooning also painted a portrait of the president, Reclining Man (John F. Kennedy) in 1963. And in it one can easily identify the face of JFK!
Bill wasn’t finished painting women either, as he produced Woman, Sag Harbor (1964), Woman on a Sign II (1967), The Visit (1966), Clam Diggers (1964) and Woman Accabonac (1966), the latter title referring to an actual place in The Springs. All of these works were decidedly abstract in nature, so Bill’s style hadn’t changed all that much. But these women were much more conventional in countenance; that is, they tended to have happy, pretty faces.
In the 1980s, Elaine de Kooning wrote about Bill’s process of creating these paintings:
The painting titled Woman Accabonac (1966), like the one of LaGuardia is very viscous. It looks slashed on. Often people didn’t realize the tremendous discipline that goes into a painting like this because it looks so arbitrary. But Bill would paint it out and do it over and over again to get the exact gesture that he wanted, not that he knew the gesture beforehand, but he knew it when he finally arrived at it.
Into the Third Dimension: Sculptures
In the late 1960s and into the ‘70s, de Kooning began producing lithographs and bronze sculptures. Living near the Atlantic Ocean, Bill often saw people digging for clams, so he created a bronze sculpture entitled Clam Digger (1972), which shows a standing man seemingly dripping with sand and mud after having dug for clams. He also produced much larger bronze sculptures, some of which hundred of centimeters in height and width.
While working the clay used to make these bronzes, de Kooning often relied on techniques similar to those of the Surrealists, something like “automatic writing.” In an attempt to limit conscious control of the body and thereby enhance the use of the intuitive aspect of the brain, he would sculpt with his eyes closed or work while wearing two pairs of rubber gloves.
As for inspiration for his sculptures, de Kooning referred to the French painter Chaim Soutine. Bill said, “I’ve always been crazy about Soutine – all of his paintings. Maybe it’s the lushness of the paint. He builds up a surface that looks like a material, like a substance. There’s a kind of transfiguration, a certain fleshiness in his work.”
During the 1970s, de Kooning succumbed to alcoholism and needed help quitting alcohol. Fortunately, Elaine helped. Although separated from Bill since 1955, she was still a very good and helpful friend. About this time, Bill said: “I have to change to stay the same.”
Now elderly, but sober - and using assistants to help him with his artwork - de Kooning produced over 300 paintings from 1980 to 1987. Including in his paintings what have been called “lyrical arabesques,” these works tended to be simple, clean and spare, to the point that some critics and experts have wondered if he was suffering from dementia when he produced them.
Be that as it may, as prolific as he’d ever been, perhaps Bill had been able to, as he phrased it back in 1950, “paint himself out of the picture” and thereby work more rapidly. Excellent examples of his later work included Untitled VII (1985) and The Cat’s Meow (1987).
Obviously suffering from dementia by 1989, Bill could no longer handle his business affairs. Thereafter, his daughter Lisa and John I. Eastman managed such matters. Incidentally, Lisa was the daughter of Willem de Kooning and Joan Ward, a commercial artist. (Lisa died at 56 in 2012.)
Suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Willem de Kooning passed on March 19, 1997. As for his wife, Elaine de Kooning died of cancer in 1989.
In 2006, Willem de Kooning’s painting Woman III (1953) sold for $137.5 million.
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© 2015 Kelley Marks