Willem de Kooning was a Dutch-born American painter, one of the major representatives of Abstract Expressionism.
Willem Kooning was born on April 24, 1904 in Rotterdam – one of the major Dutch cities of that time. His father was wine and beer distributer and his mother owned a bar near the port. In 1907 the boy’s parents divorced. For a short period he lived with father, but soon moved to Cornelia.
In 1916 Willem started working for the commercial art and decorating firm of Jan and Jaap Gidding and enrolled evening classes of the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques. There he received academic training, which include mainly history of art and life drawing. Yet, as students of the academy were keen about the ideas of De Stijl group (especially by Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian), they were allowed to practice in typography and work in wood and marble. Kooning would later recall: “At the academy in Rotterdam we were all under the influence of de Stijl. This was in the early twenties. We weren’t at all interested in pure art, or in the person who earned his living being an artist. The Stijl group obviously encouraged our feelings. A modern artist, according to them, was not at all somebody who [painted] nice pictures […] He was an expert, a designer for example or somebody in publicity. And so I didn’t have a wish at all to become a painter”.
In 1920 Willem Kooning was accepted as an assistant of Bernard Romein, who was the art director of a big local department store. There he earned for living painting signs and arranging window displays. In 1924 together with his friends the artist left for Belgium, where he attended the Académie royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. In parallel he entered the Van Schelling School of Design in Antwerpen, living between two cities.
But even after graduating, Willem wasn’t sure about his future career. He dreamt of visiting America and in 1926 got there as a stowaway on the SS Shelley. On July 15, 1926 he and his friend Leo Cohan they reached the point of destination – Newport News in Virginia. At first, the painter was dissapointed: “What I saw was a sort of Holland. L
owlands. What the hell did I want to go to America for?”. In 1927 Willem de Kooning finally moved to New York, initially earning for living with occasional part-time jobs – working as a carpenter, sign painter and commercial artist for illegal (because of Prohibition) bars.
Gradually Kooning broadened his circle of professional connections, integrating into New York artistic world. In summer of 1928 while staying in Woodstock, where many of American painters used to spend their vacations, he met member of A.A.A. – American Abstract Artists group. In two years he got acquainted with Arshile Gorky, who had a significant influence on his pieces. The young master was inspired by the pieces of Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse he saw in galleries and museums of New York.
In the mid 1930s de Kooning (in 1937 he added “de” to his surname), searching for his own creative direction, creates a series of abstract works, which he had later destroyed. It was hard to find buyers, as the USA were going through the crisis. Introduced by Roosevelt “New Deal” program was a true rescue for artists. Due to it the Work Progress Administration (WPA) was created to provide them with commissions. WPA invited Willem and 37 other painters to design murals for the New York World’s Fair Hall of Pharmacy (1939) and a four-part mural “Legend and Fact” for the library of the SS President Jackson of American President Lines (1940).
Unstable financial situation didn’t make the painter desperate. He continued making friends with his colleagues and writers, finding: “their conversation very stimulating […] the words they used, made a picture in my mind […] sometimes I could say of myself I painted with a good ear”. Music was very important for the author – he liked jazz and transferred its principle of improvisation and spontaneity into his canvases. At that period, de Kooning explored two vectors in the development of painting – on one hand he produced a series of male figures (“Two Men Standing”, 1938), on the other, close to abstraction still lifes and interiors and completely non-narrative works (“Elegy”, 1939).
Willem dedicated a lot of time making various commissions to get some money – he rendered illustration for the fashion magazines, designs of interiors and on and so forth. He remained close with the masters from A.A.A. group, yet de Kooning never joined them, believing that association to be too dogmatic. The outburst of World War II forced a lot of artists from Europe to escape in the USA, mainly surrealists. Ernst, Dali, Breton, Mondrian and Duchamp were in the center of public’s attention again, yet de Kooning’s attitude to them remained neutral. In 1942 the artist refused suggestion to participate in the exhibition, dedicated to the opening of Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery. He thought the master’s who exhibited at it, were too close to Surrealism, which he claimed to be estrange for him. Nevertheless, some of his paintings witness the influence of this movement, particularly of Picasso (“Pink Angels”, 1945): the lyricism of earlier works vanished, replaced by rather aggressive deformation of figures, placed in a compressed space. In 1943 he displayed some pieces in “Art of the 20th century” show at Bignou gallery in New York.
Finally Willem de Kooning was noticed by critics and viewers. In 1948 the Egan gallery held his first solo exhibition, where displayed his black and white compositions, like “Light in August” (1946), “Black Friday” (1948), “Zurich” (1947) and “Mailbox” (1947– 1948). Their monochrome palette can be explained by lack of money – the artist couldn’t afford himself to buy pigments, so shifted to household enamels. The show received a positive review from an influential critic Clement Greenberg. Some of his black and white abstractions (now with predominance of white, like “Excavation”) were presented at the 25th Venice Biennale (1950), along with paintings of Gorky and Jackson Pollock.
Willem de Kooning’s art finally became of great demand – Museum of Modern Art in New York and Art Institute in Chicago bought his works in the beginning of 1950s. However, while many specialists considered him to be a key person in new American painting, the artist’s pieces often shocked wide public. Completed in 1952 “Woman I” canvas provoked controversies – it was one of six paintings in the series of grotesque female images. Although the subject of woman had been presented in de Kooning’s art since 1940s, it wasn’t until 1952 – 1953 that it became one of the central motifs of his pictures, like “Woman and Bicycle” (1953) or “Woman as a Landscape” (1955). During late 1950s – early 1960s another important topic emerged – it’s abstract urban and rural landscapes (“Door to the River”, 1960, “Villa Borghese”, 1960), noticeable for their calmness (comparing to the female series), clarity and wide, almost calligraphic, brushstrokes.
In 1958 the master moved to a big studio on Broadway. The same year he started travelling – journey to Venice and Rome inspired him to create a series of drawings in blue ink, where for the first time for the last few years anthropomorphic forms appeared again. In 1960 he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters and received American citizenship in two years. In 1964 Willem de Kooning was honored with the Guggenheim International Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The painter frequently travelled abroad, mainly to organize his one-man shows. In 1968 he attended Paris, after which visited Netherlands. The next year he had a trip to Japan and Italy. Willem didn’t gave up working. It was a successful and fruitful period of his creative activity – some of his canvases were sold for enormous sums. For instance, “Interchange” (1955) was sold from the auction for 20 millions 680 thousands dollars, which was a record sum for the piece of a living author.
The period of 1980s in de Kooning’s legacy demonstrated return to the idea of biomorphic form, he had been developing in 1930s – 1940s, but on another, more complicated level. Such canvases as “Rider” (“Untitled VII”, 1985) are marked by purity of color and graphism of forms, composed of soft lines on white background.
Officially the artist gave up painting in 1984. By that time he had already been suffering Alzheimer disease for four years. Willem de Kooning lived 13 years more and died on March 19, 1997 in East Hampton, aged 92.