Movement, Style, School or Type of Art:
We say Willem de Kooning was an Abstract Expressionist because he was a founding artist of that new, New York movement. He didn't call himself that, though, and said in 1955, "Words and labels are very confusing. We need definitions. I'm not an Abstract Expressionist, but I express myself."
And then there was Jackson Pollock, who used to ride his friend "Bill" mercilessly about not getting with the program. He had a minor point: de Kooning was the only member of the First Generation Abstract Expressionists who continued incorporating the human figure into his work. (Mostly, though, Pollock was just being annoying.)
Date and Place of Birth:
April 24, 1904; Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Willem was born in North Rotterdam to Leendert and Cornelia (neé Nobel) de Kooning. He had one older sister, Marie (b. 1899), who would become the closest thing he had to a mother. Cornelia, his "real" mother, was so sharp-tongued and prone to violent outbursts that Leendert took the unusual step of filing for divorce before Willem was three years old.
Early Life and Training:
De Kooning, who was called "Wim" as a child, spent his formative years being volleyed back and forth by his parents. When his mother remarried, she sent him to live with Leendert. Subsequently, when his father's second wife was pregnant, Willem was sent back to Cornelia. Leendert was emotionally unavailable, while Cornelia was prone to inflicting verbal and physical abuse. If you are getting the sense that Wim's childhood was neither nurturing nor stable, you are correct.
As soon as his mandatory schooling was completed at age 12, de Kooning was apprenticed to the upscale commercial art and decorating firm Gidding & Zonen. He spent the next year working long hours while learning skills in lettering and precisely painted decorative fine lines. The Gidding brothers, who knew talent when they saw it, urged Willem to attend night classes at their Alma mater, the Academie van Beeldende Kunsten (which had the scheduling advantage of being across the street from their firm).
De Kooning enrolled in the Academie's rigorous handteekenen (drawing program) in 1913, and was one of only four students enrolling that year to complete the four-year course. The program concentrated on classical instruction; students were expected to draw exactly what they saw, and never allow any ideas of their own to intrude on the process. As was often the case in Modern Art, this thorough training in formal technique proved to be a solid base from which many an artist drew the confidence to chuck formality out of the window.
Between his third and fourth years at the Academie, de Kooning quit his job at Gidding & Zonen and left home, tired of his mother's assaults. He slept wherever he could find a bed, worked (1) lettering signs for a commercial artist and (2) on the docks in Rotterdam's riverfront, and decided to -- somehow -- go to the United States for a fresh start. He tried to stowaway on ships a number of times, but always either picked a candidate going somewhere else or was caught.
Finally, in July of 1926, his luck changed. Willem de Kooning spent twelve days hiding in the engine room of the British ship S.S. Shelley as it crossed the Atlantic. He surreptitiously disembarked at Newport News, Virginia on July 30.
The New Kid in New York City:
Initially disappointed with the Land of Opportunity (the Tidewater region of Virginia is every bit as flat and watery as Rotterdam), de Kooning worked his way up the East Coast to the Holland Seaman's Home in Hoboken, New Jersey. He spent around a year there, painting houses, then landed a job at the Eastman Brothers design firm in Manhattan. The job wasn't too demanding and paid well, but the real attractions of New York City soon became clear to Bill (as he now styled himself): the colony of struggling artists in Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side, and available women. Interestingly, he was an excellent, generous friend to most members of the former group, and treated the latter badly at worst and cavalierly at best -- which only seemed to make the women who came into his orbit want him more.
De Kooning's true love, of course, was art. With each artist he met, he was drawn further into their world of experimentation, of searching for something new. His day jobs were always some form of commercial design, an honest profession but, increasingly, not something he wanted to do any longer. He kept an unnaturally tidy studio space at home (wherever that happened to be at the time; eviction became as standard for Bill as it was for his painter friends) and painted in his off time.
Through the early- to mid-1930s, de Kooning's social life consisted of endless cups of coffee (it was cheap) with John Graham, Stuart Davis Arshile Gorky and, later, Mark Rothko. Their caffeine-charged discussions helped crystallize his growing understanding of Modernism. Work from this period is a weird blend of advertising illustrations, perfectly rendered, and paintings that are neither fish nor fowl. He was clearly going for abstraction, but realism hadn't let loose its grip yet.
Nowhere was this battle more clear than in his work as a mural painter. Bill had worked for the WPA as an artist for a short time, until non-citizens were barred from the program. He then picked up a series of small jobs, but got a break from an acquaintance of a commercial artist who liked Bill's work (read: his realistic work) and asked him to paint a mural for the 1939 World's Fair. The wall on which he painted this mural in his evolving modern style was adjacent to the Long Island Expressway. Of the thousands of drivers who passed the mural each day, 99% of them either loathed or laughed at the thing (which was summarily painted over). Another artist might have been crushed, but not much fazed de Kooning after everything else he'd been through.
Two momentous events ushered out the 30s for Bill. In 1938 he met Elaine Fried (1918-1989), and fell head over heels in love. Unbeknown to him, she had been angling to be introduced. Elaine was an artist who collected artist-boyfriends, each more "important" than the last. By this time, Bill had quite a reputation (among other artists) as an exciting up-and-comer.
The other event that hit de Kooning like a bolt of lightning was seeing Picasso's Guernica in New York City while it was on tour to raise funds for the Spanish Republicans. The naked emotion painted in the huge canvas both immobilized and rendered him speechless. It had the same effect on all of the young artists in New York. No one had ever seen anything like it. Could art this full of barely-recognizable forms really move viewers so greatly? Perhaps they were on the right track, after all ...
The Birth of AbEx:
The 1940s passed in a blur of creativity. Bill was not alone in constantly pushing his work in new directions; "Everybody's doin' it," as the song went. Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, every artist in this band of friends (and friendly rivals) was painting controlled chaos. The emphasis was on form, whether it came via brushstrokes, poured or flung paint, or paint and mixed media. Only Gorky and de Kooning kept any references to recognizable shapes; figurative art was passé in this group.
Luckily for them, the artists were one anothers' biggest supporters and kindest critics. Between them all they amassed: a record number of evictions; a small cadre of fans who were long on admiration and short on cash; a much smaller number of patrons -- an artist was lucky if he had one; a minuscule amount of poorly-attended shows; and almost zero sales.
De Kooning somehow managed to stay afloat doing commercial illustration, one summer's teaching job at Black Mountain, and occasionally selling a painting for $10 or so. His largest sale, for $450, was to a woman who was simply on a buying spree.
The two defining events of the 1940s, for de Kooning, were his marriage to Elaine in 1943 and Arshile Gorky's suicide in 1948. Both Bill and Elaine had had innumerable affairs prior to their marriage, and the state of Holy Matrimony did nothing to slow this pastime down. It seemed that they loved but honestly didn't like each other very much, and went on to have an epically dysfunctional union for the next 45 years. However, de Kooning did get something wonderful out of marriage: he was no longer an illegal alien.
Gorky's death was another matter. His friend and mentor's suicide broke Bill's heart.
The 1950s and Beyond:
You probably already know that the Abstract Expressionists (as they were now called) practically became household names in the 1950s. Once they were "discovered," everyone, it seemed, wanted to know, see, review, and interview them. De Kooning went from no sales to selling anything he painted, drew, or had printed, including older works that he couldn't give away just a few years before. For one golden decade, he could do no wrong in the court of public opinion.
Success can be funny, though. Just when other people might have basked in their hard-won acclaim, quite a few of the AbEx artists -- following Jackson Pollock's lead -- became full-blown alcoholics. Bill was no exception although, ironically, he hadn't started drinking for drink's sake. His doctor had prescribed a medicinal tipple whenever Bill felt heart palpitations. Sadly, it soon seemed as if he had palpitations morning, noon, and night, and he was not one of those "happy" drunks. He tried rehab and AA from the 1970s onward, but only his deteriorating cognitive abilities brought an enforced end to de Kooning's drinking.
His fame also attracted even more women. They were legion and largely unimportant, but one woman whose name you should know is Joan Ward. Bill had managed to avoid fatherhood (by luck and by financing quite a few abortions) when he met the pretty young art student in 1952. Joan gave Willem his only child, Johanna Lisbeth ("Lisa"), in 1956 -- the same year that Jackson Pollock died.
After living in America for 36 years, Willem de Kooning became a US citizen in 1962. He and Elaine never did get around to divorcing, and grew close in old age. When she preceded him in death in 1989, Elaine was still his legal spouse.
By the end of the 50s, AbEx was waning in popularity, although the artists themselves remained famous. Never content to rest on his laurels, de Kooning continued to stretch himself and push the boundaries of his work. This led to a brief foray into sculpture in the early 70s, the results of which were cast in bronze, in limited editions. From 1980 on, his late paintings became less complicated, more free, and much warmer in color.
Even as Alzheimer's Disease became more evident and assistants helped carry out the work, de Kooning continued to paint as long as he could. Making art, after all, was the one thing in life that had never let him down.
Relevancy to Art History:
Willem de Kooning is perhaps best known by the general public for his Woman series, despite producing scores of other paintings, drawings, lithographs, and sculptures. His name was huge in the 1950s, but by the time that Pop Art became the next big thing, he began to worry he'd be forgotten. That did seem to be the case for a couple of decades, during which his shows garnered negative reviews almost exclusively. However, his popularity surged again in the 1980s with the return of figurative painting. (Unfortunately, he was suffering from dementia by then, and thus unaware.)
De Kooning's critical reputation is now unquestioned. He was a pillar of the Abstract Expressionists and an influence on subsequent generations of painters.
- The Black-and-White Abstractions, 1945-50
- Painting, 1948
- The Woman series, 1950-55
- Excavation, 1950
Date and Place of Death:
March 19, 1997; East Hampton, Long Island, New York
De Kooning had been slowly succumbing to Alzheimer's Disease since the late 70s, and stopped working altogether in the late 80s. His body kept functioning long after his cognitive skills were gone.
Though Green River Cemetery was close to his Long Island home, Bill did not wish to be buried there. Green River contains the graves of his friends Jackson Pollock, Stuart Davis, and Frank O'Hara, and de Kooning was horrified at the thought of lying underground with "the boys." In accordance with his wishes, the artist's remains were cremated.
How To Pronounce "de Kooning":
- deh koo·ning
Sources and Further Reading:
- De Kooning, Willem. Collected Writings of William De Kooning.
Madras and New York: Hanuman Books, 1988.
- Grunenberg, Christoph. "Willem de Kooning".
Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, (27 10 2011).
Read a review of Grove Art Online.
- Hess, Thomas B. Willem de Kooning.
New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1968
- Janis, Harriet and Rudi Blesh. De Kooning.
New York: Grove Press, 1960.
- Stevens, Mark and Annalyn Swan. de Kooning: An American Master.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.