Willem de Kooning is widely considered to be one of the greatest Abstract Expressionist painters of the post-World War II period, his dominance rivaled perhaps only by Jackson Pollock. Remembered for his large canvases as well as the controversial melding of both abstract and figurative imagery, de Kooning lived much longer than his contemporaries, many of whom had untimely deaths. The group of painters that would be identified as the New York School was made up of de Kooning and contemporaries such as Arshile Gorky and Edgar Denby, and they helped to establish New York City’s reputation as a center for artistic activity. Although his work appears spontaneous, de Kooning often spent many months on a single piece, repeatedly painting over completed sections and occasionally pressing newspaper onto the drying canvas. Friend and New Yorker critic Harold Rosenberg first used the term “Action painting” to refer to de Kooning’s violent slashes of color and the shifting foreground and background typical of his abstract work. “Painting isn’t just the visual thing that reaches your retina,” the artist once said, “it’s what’s behind it. I’m not interested in ‘abstracting’ or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line, and color. I paint this way because I can keep putting more and more things in — drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space. Through your eyes it again becomes an emotion or an idea. It doesn’t matter if it’s different from mine as long as it comes from the painting which has its own integrity and intensity.”
Willem de Kooning was born on April 24, 1904, in Rotterdam, Holland.His father was a liquor dispenser and his mother ran a sailor’s bar on the waterfront. De Kooning’s parents, Leendert de Kooning and Cornelia Nobel, were divorced when he was about five years old, and he was raised by his mother and a stepfather. His early artistic training included eight years at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques. In the 1920s he worked as an assistant to the art director of a Rotterdam department store.
In 1926 Willem de Kooning headed to America as a stowaway and settled in New York. He worked as a house-painter, sign writer and carpenter. Willem de Kooning met other artists, including John Graham, Stuart Davis and Arshile Gorky and worked for the Federal Art Project, for which he did murals between 1935 and 1939. From 1935 in fact, he was able to devote himself entirely to painting. He shared a studio with Gorky and his early pictures were influenced by Gorky’s Surrealist style and by Picasso´s painting. However, de Kooning was also inspired by the Gestural branch of the New York School as well as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. In 1939 Will Kooning was commissioned by the New York World’s Fair to create a mural for the Hall of Pharmacy that he entitled Medicine. During this period, he also painted a series of portraits of men that included “Self-Portrait with Imaginary Brother”, “Two Men Standing” (shown here)), and “Glazier”. His early paintings, focusing on figures of clothed men, contain elements inspired by Gorky’s work as well as that of Picasso and Ingres. In 1948, with his first one-man show, de Kooning was painting in an extremely abstract style, frequently in black and white in the vein of Jackson Pollock though retaining a definite figurative quality in his work. This exhibition was to establish his reputation, confirmed two years later, with one of his most admired works ‘Excavation’.
Kooning had painted women regularly in the early 1940s and again from 1947 to 1949. The biomorphic shapes of his early abstractions can be interpreted as female symbols. But it was not until 1950 that he began to explore the subject of women exclusively. In the summer of that year he began Woman I, which went through innumerable metamorphoses before it was finished in 1952. ‘Woman I’ (1950-1952), with its glaring black eyes and disturbing grin provoked dismay amongst critics and public alike, yet it became one of the most reproduced paintings in the USA. De Kooning took an unusually long time to create Woman, I, making numerous preliminary studies and repainting the work repeatedly. During this period he also created other paintings of women. These works were shown at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1953 and caused a sensation, chiefly because they were figurative when most of his fellow AbstractExpressionists were painting abstractly and because of their blatant technique and imagery. The savagely applied pigment and the use of colors that seem vomited on his canvas combine to reveal a woman all too congruent with some of modern man’s most widely held sexual fears. The toothy snarls, overripe, pendulous breasts, vacuous eyes, and blasted extremities imaged the darkest Freudian insights.
By the late Fifties de Kooning moved to Long Island, although he still commuted back and forth to Manhattan, a journey that is represented in his highway images of 1957 to 1958. De Kooning returned to Holland in 1968 for a major retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. A year later he began to sculpt, modelling figures in clay and later casting them in bronze. “I am an eclectic artist by choice; I can open almost any book of reproductions and find a painting I could be influenced by.” Willem de Kooning.
Abstract – 1949
Pink Angels – 1945
Woman I – 1950
Figures in Landscape – 1974