Willem de Kooning 1904-1997
By Aliza Wall
Born April 24, 1904, in Rotterdam, Netherlands, Willem de Kooning was an Abstract Expressionist painter characterised by his works’ expressive dynamic. As a youth, de Kooning engaged with art in a practical manner, apprenticing under a firm of commercial artists and decorators. At the same time, the artist enrolled in night classes at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts (which would later be renamed in his honour) where he would study for eight years. In 1920, he began working for the art director of a large department store.
In 1926, de Kooning stowed away on a ship bound for Argentina. When the ship docked in Virginia, de Kooning slipped off, making his way to New Jersey without going through immigration. There, the artist worked as a house painter to support himself. In 1927, de Kooning moved to Manhattan and came under the influence of the artist and art critic John Graham and painter Arshile Gorky. His early works were primarily crude still life paintings and landscapes. By the 1930s, de Kooning began to explore abstraction, his works being influenced by Graham, Gorky, and Picasso.
De Kooning joined the Artist’s Union in 1934 and in 1935, he was employed in the Federal Art Project, a New Deal program that funded visual arts in the United States. He was commissioned to work on murals for the Williamsburg Federal Housing Project in Brooklyn and the French Line Pier Project in New York under prominent French artist Fernand Léger. However, neither mural was realized. De Kooning left the program in 1937 because he did not have American citizenship and feared discovery. In 1938, de Kooning created a series of melancholic male figures, including Two Standing Men. The image is clearly influenced by Gorky’s The Artist and his Mother (ca. 1926) in its reconciliation of flatness and the human figure. At the same time, de Kooning was creating lyrical abstract works such as Pink Landscape (1938) and Elegy (1939).
Over time, de Kooning’s abstract and figurative works began to fuse, epitomised by his 1946 work,Pink Angels. Although initially appearing abstract, the image depicts two female figures stripped of their clothes and faces, their bodies distorted into voluptuous, disjointed caricatures. From this point, de Kooning’s style can be best explained as a complex and continuous interplay between figuration and abstraction. In 1946, de Kooning began to use black and white household enamels because he could not afford artists’ pigments. Using this unconventional paint, de Kooning created a series of abstract monochrome works including Light in August (1946), Black Friday (1948) and Zurich (1947). De Kooning began to reintroduce colour in the late 1940s. During this period, he became increasingly associated with the American Abstract Expressionists, a movement obsessed with pure abstraction and high Greenbergian modernism. However, de Kooning resisted this association, stating that he was “not interested in…reducing painting to design, form, line, and colour.”
In the 1950s, de Kooning revisited the motif of the woman, reconceptualising it to create what is perhaps his best-known series, the Women paintings. Woman I (1950-52) makes renders the concealed woman of his Pink Angels more obvious. This woman is both sexual and violent, and some critics have later named the work the actualisation of Freud’s darkest insights. This is because the figure of the woman is exploited by de Kooning as an object upon which desire, conflict, and pleasure can be projected and explored. This uneasiness is compounded by the seeming incompleteness of the image; de Kooning painted and re-painted Women I for almost two years.
In 1955, de Kooning turned from the figurative woman to the symbolic woman. This can be seen in his 1954-55 work Woman as Landscape where the female figure is absorbed into the landscape and exists only in the title and as a vague visual evocation. De Kooning subsequently focused on abstract urban landscapes that became increasingly simplistic over time.
When de Kooning moved to East Hampton, Long Island, he again engaged in the depiction of women. His work Clam Diggers (1964) is uncharacteristically conventional, likely quoting Rubens’ voluptuous figures. He continued to fluctuate between abstraction and figuration during this period. Some critics identify these works as among his last “true” works because de Kooning started to develop Alzheimer’s during this time. He therefore may not have been in full control of his output during this period, which was uncharacteristically gentle and lyrical. De Kooning died at the age of 93, leaving behind an oeuvre marked by its singular humility, imperfection, and curiosity.
Gotthardt, Alexxa. “Willem de Kooning on How to Be an Artist.” Artsy. March 4, 2019. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-willem-de-kooning-artist.
Kedmey, Karen. “Willem de Kooning.” MoMA. Accessed April 17, 2019. https://www.moma.org/artists/3213.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Brittanica. “Willem de Kooning.” Encyclopaedia Brittanica. March 15, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Willem-de-Kooning.
“The strange story behind Willem de Kooning’s Woman I.” Phaidon. June 19, 2019. https://uk.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2014/june/19/the-strange-story-behind-willem-de-kooning-s-woman-i/.