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Willem de Kooning

 (1904 - 1997)
Willem de Kooning was active/lived in New York / Netherlands, Germany.  Willem de Kooning is known for abstract expressionist painting, figurative.

Willem de Kooning

    KOO-ning  speaker-click to hear pronunciation  click to hear

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning was born in Rotterdam, Holland on April 24, 1904.  His  father, Leenert, was a wine and beer distributor who won custody of young Willem when his parents separated about five years after his birth.  His mother, Cornelia Nobel de Kooning, ran a tough seamen's bar, and snatched the boy back soon after.  At the age of twelve, with  elementary school behind him, de Kooning entered an informal apprenticeship with commercial artists and designers, Jan and Jaay Gidding, who also provided his art  education.  They enrolled him in night courses at the Rotterdam Akademie voor Beeldende Kunsten en Wettenschappen, where he studied academic art and crafts. His first jobs were in commercial art, including a year in Belgium during which he visited museums and studied.

He came to the United States illegally in 1926 and settled in Hoboken, New Jersey, which had a large Dutch community, while he learned English.  He began his career as a house painter.   When he saw an ad in a New York newspaper for someone to do commercial artwork, he went to New York and for many years he did lettering, sign painting and carpentry.  In 1935 he was employed doing murals for the Federal Arts project; the same year he did his first easel painting and his first independent commission was for part of a mural for the New York World's Fair of 1939 and 1940. A series of black and white abstractions in the late 1940s were the subject of his first one-man show.  He chose black and white for the simple reason that the neutral paints were less expensive, but the works were considered his best by many experts.   In 1943 he married Elaine Fried, who was one of his art students. In 1948 they visited East Hampton as weekend guests of Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner.
De Kooning's pride and joy was his studio, built between 1963 and 1969 to his specifications.  He spent most of his day there.  Besides hard work, his other pleasures were seeing movies and bicycle riding.  He designed the huge studio with 30-foot ceilings, white walls and large expanses of glass, allowing all available light to pour in.

Despite his quick American assimilation, de Kooning's ties to Holland surfaced on occasion.  It is significant that though in 1964 de Kooning was awarded America's highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom, he had remained a Dutch citizen for almost forty years after arriving here.

The whole myth of American life, the vulgarity, the bigness, the overstatements, appealed to De Kooning.  He could find inspiration in aspects of American culture that Americans tend to be repulsed by.  He repeatedly told visitors that he had gotten the idea of mixing his colors from the ice-cream counter at Howard Johnson's, where twenty-eight variously colored flavors were shown off in buckets.

Like many artists, De Kooning had frequent periods of self-doubt while painting.  A doctor friend told him to take a brandy in the morning; as a result, he became a drunk.  His alcoholism contributed to the disintegration of his marriage and they separated in 1955.  They never divorced and she remained his close friend and colleague.  After the separation, DeKooning, who was always attractive to women, moved in with Joan Ward, a commercial artist.  When De Kooning was fifty-two, their daughter, Lisa, was born.  Three years later deKooning moved to Rome with Ruth Kligman, an artist's model.  But his alcoholic blackouts grew worse, interspersed with periods in drying-out wards, until 1978 when Elaine finally persuaded him to go to Alcoholics Anonymous.  She secretly gave him a drug, Antabuse, that made him sick when he drank.  By 1980 he was through the worst.  The originator of a boisterous idea of painting-as-adventure, he had gotten lost in a haze of often violent alcoholism and was almost never able to paint.  The period between 1978 and 1981 in a retrospective at the National Gallery of Art was represented by a single work.  In the 1980s, however, a newly sober De Kooning suddenly became productive once again, although he also began to slide into what the doctors believe is Alzheimer's disease.

De Kooning used a variety of tricks to pump up the sensuously inviting tactility of his surfaces, including his famous wet-on-wet technique of mixing salad oil in the pigment, in order to make it slithery, fluid and receptive to sustained periods of work.  It didn't dry out fast.  As he worked he would repeatedly scrape down the surface, leaving layered smears and traces of underpaint to show through, like insistent memories of past encounters piling up one on top of  the other.  His paintings can look slatternly, as if they've been around.  He rarely painted either males or reclining figures.

De Kooning's circle of friends consisted either of old acquaintances of many years' duration or people introduced to him by a trusted group of advisors who shielded him from exploitation.  In this second category is former Beatle, Paul McCartney, whose wife, Linda Eastman, was the daughter of De Kooning's lawyer, Lee Eastman.  The McCartneys always came to visit when they were in East Hampton.

Great artists have collided with mortality throughout history, but none has done it in quite the way that De Kooning has.  His last paintings were those made between 1981 and 1990; then he laid down his brushes for good and became an invalid tended around the clock.  He died on Wednesday, March 19, 1997.

The Later Years by Christopher Knight, LA Times, October 9, 1995 
New World Ardor by Christopher Knight, LA Times, May 29, 1994 
Myrna Oliver , Obituary in the LA Times, March 20, 1997 
ARTnews, February 1982 
Dutch Master by Patrick Pacheco in Art & Antiques, September 1994                                                                    .
Article in ARTnews,Summer 1989 by Andrew Decker
Painted Women by Linda Nochlin in Art in America, November 1998   

Written and compiled by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher of Laguna Woods, California.

Biography from
Biography photo for Willem de Kooning
Willem De Kooning, one of the recognized masters of abstract expressionism, was a founder of the New York School of action painting.  Born and raised in tidy, neat Holland, De Kooning created art that is the antithesis of calm.  His paintings seem to retain the force of instantaneous creation, with images continuing to grow out of other images.

Born in Rotterdam in 1904, De Kooning received a solid background in the applied arts as an apprentice, first for a commercial art firm and then for a display and sign painter.  Through the latter, he was exposed to the de Stijl geometric design movement, led by Mondrian, and to the cubist revolutionaries of Paris.

Working by day, he studied painting in evening classes at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques.  In 1924, he went to Belgium for further study; two years later, as a stowaway, he came to the United States.

De Kooning settled in Hoboken, New Jersey and supported himself as a house painter.  His early paintings were experimental. Although he admired the order and purity of Mondrian's work, his own showed no trace of it.

In 1933, he became a friend of Arshile Gorky, with whom he shared an intense admiration for cubism and Picasso. Gorky had a far-reaching influence on De Kooning's development.

In the late 1930s, De Kooning worked for the WPA Federal Art Project and, for the first time, earned his living as an artist.  It was not until 1948, however, that he was ready for his first one-man show of masterful black paintings with white-line drawing.  That same year, his friend Gorky committed suicide. It was a stunning blow to De Kooning and yet, at the same time, a liberation. Paintings, sardonic and violent, began to pour from his brush.

In 1952, obsessed with interest in the human figure, De Kooning began a long series of paintings of women, the most powerful work that he had yet done.

He explored the theme over and over again. Sometimes it was woman as sex symbol; other times, as in Woman 1 (1952, Museum of Modern Art), she is depicted as a repellent, sharp-fanged, horn-bosomed vampire. Each time, De Kooning seemed to attack the canvas savagely, letting paint drip and dribble down the surface. Since the 1960s, he has alternated between pure abstractions and paintings of women.

"Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure," De Kooning once said. "I always seem to be wrapped up in the melodrama of vulgarity."

Biography from
WILLEM de KOONING (1904-1997)

A leading figure of abstract expressionism, Willem de Kooning was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. He was apprenticed in 1916 to a local commercial art and decorating firm. For the next eight years de Kooning attended night classes at the Rotterdam Academy, receiving formal training in fine and applied arts. In 1926 de Kooning came to the United States with aspirations of becoming a commercial artist. Settling in New York in 1927, he met John Graham, Arshile Gorky, Stuart Davis, and other important avant-garde artists. In 1935, under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project, de Kooning was able to devote himself fully to painting for the first time.

Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s de Kooning produced work in both figurative and abstract styles. His first one-person show in New York in 1948 featured a series of black and white paintings and established his reputation as an abstract painter; however, it was not until 1953, when de Kooning exhibited a controversial group of paintings of women at the Sidney Janis Gallery, that he came to fame. With the notoriety elicited by these provocative images built from slashing brushstrokes and slicing lines, de Kooning's reputation was secured as a leader of abstract expressionism.

In the mid to late 1950s he turned to a series of works featuring the urban landscape and suburban parkways, also abstractions painted with thick, forceful looping strokes. De Kooning's versatility was also revealed through his explorations in sculpture. While in Rome in 1969, de Kooning began experimenting with small clay sculptures; this work led to the production of large-scale bronze works similar to some of his painted figures in the dynamic push and pull of the forms. After moving to Easthampton in 1963, his primary inspiration came from the Long Island landscape, both the land and the surrounding water. This subject matter allowed him to compose vigorous compositions in which forms emerge and are submerged. Throughout his long career, de Kooning's art has been featured in numerous national and international exhibitions.

De Kooning died in Easthampton in 1997.

Biography from Albert Allen Gallery
Willem de Kooning Biography

1904 Born in Rotterdam, Holland

1916 Enrolled, Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts & Letters, Rotterdam, Holland

1926 Immigrated to the United States

1934 Joined the Artist's Union

1935 Joined mural division, W.P.A. Federal Art Project

1962 Became United States Citizen

1964 Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom by Lyndon B. Johnson, Washington, DC

1975 Awarded Gold Medal, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, NY

1982 Elected member of the Akademie der Künste, Berlin, Germany

1985 Awarded National Medal of Arts by U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Washington, DC

1997 Died

Selected Exhibitions

1984 Willem de Kooning - Zeichnungen, Gemälde, Skulpturen, Akademie der Künste Berlin, Germany

1983 Willem de Kooning: The North Atlantic Light, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Holland

1976 - 1977 Willem de Kooning: Painting and Sculpture, organized by the Smithsonian Institution Washington, DC (exhibition opened in Belgrade, Yugoslavia)

1976 - 1977 Paris-New York, Centre Georges Pompidou Paris, France

1958 The New American Painting, Museum of Modern Art New York, NY

1953 Retrospective, School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, MA

1950 Venice Biennale Venice, Italy

1948 De Kooning, Egan Gallery New York, NY

1948 Annual Exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art New York, NY

1944 Abstract and Surrealist Art in America, Mortimer Brandt Gallery
New York, NY

1942 American and French Painting, McMillen Inc. New York, NY

1936 New Horizons in American Art, Museum of Modern Art New York, NY

Biography from Hollis Taggart Galleries
Born in 1920 and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Elaine de Kooning (née Fried) studied at Hunter College and the Leonardo da Vinci Art School. At the age of 18, she met fellow artist Willem de Kooning at a cafeteria, became his student, and quickly found herself at the center of the avant garde. The couple married in 1943. After years of financial struggle for both artists, Willem de Kooning emerged as an acclaimed and commercially successful Abstract Expressionist in the 1950s.

Elaine de Kooning had her first solo exhibition in 1952 at the Stable Gallery. While she is best known for her association with Abstract Expressionism, she also worked in a more realistic vein, bringing her spontaneous gestural style and talent for deft characterization to landscapes, portraits and, later in her career, a series inspired by paleolithic cave paintings. She often worked in series, sketching rapidly and exploring every facet of her subject matter.

De Kooning was also an accomplished writer and teacher. Her articles for "ARTnews" and other publications did much to publicize and illuminate the personalities and ideas behind Abstract Expressionism. She taught at colleges and universities both in the New York area and elsewhere in the county.

De Kooning died of cancer on Long Island in 1989.

© Copyright 2012 Hollis Taggart Galleries

Biography from
Born in 1904, Willem deKooning was one of the most recognized proponents of the Abstract Expressionism/New York School movement.  Born in Holland and making his way to the United States in the 1920s, deKooning made a profound mark on the art world, not only through his masterful and brazenly paintings of women and landscapes, but on the multitude of other major Twentieth century artists whose styles and careers he influenced.  Unlike many of his peers, deKooning was not a prolific print maker.

Throughout his four decades of work, he created less than one-hundred print editions, a majority of which were the lush black and white images done in the sixties and seventies. 

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© 2007 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
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About  Willem de Kooning

Born:  1904 - Rotterdam, Holland
Died:   1997 - East Hampton, New York
Known for:  abstract expressionist painting, figurative

Essays referring to
Willem de Kooning

Abstract Expressionism
Painters of Nudes