Willem de Kooning

Biography of Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning was not only one of the most celebrated Abstract Expressionist artists, but also one of its foremost leaders. The artwork of the great Dutch-American painter possessed an extraordinary visual impact through their vigorous gestural movement and sense of dynamic incompletion.


Despite his prominent role as an Abstract Expressionist artist, he never allowed himself to be categorized by the movement, and dedicated repeated periods of his practice to portraiture, landscapes, and depictions of the female figure. One of the most technically gifted artists to come out of the New York School, Willem de Kooning was particularly well-versed in art history.


Born in Rotterdam in 1904, Willem de Kooning left school at 12 to work for a commercial design and decorating firm. In 1926 he travelled to America as a stowaway and settled in New York. Here he continued to support himself with commercial art jobs despite wanting desperately to devote himself fully to his own art practice.


It wasn’t until 1935 that Willem de Kooning was able to concentrate exclusively on his art, and by 1936 he was being heralded by Harold Rosenberg as the leader of Action Painting—a style of painting in which paint is spontaneous applied to the canvas. That same year he was included in the famous exhibition “New Horizons in American Art” at MoMA, New York.


In the 1950s Willem de Kooning began his famous Women series. What characterized many of these paintings was the explosive exuberance of his markings, that contrasted with a meticulous collage-like build-up of paint. Often struggling with certain aspects of the series, he began scraping off and reworking sections, making his works appear as though they were unfinished. This soon would become synonymous with his style. He was also adept at using complex figures in his art, introducing a sense of dynamic ambiguity between the figures and the background. Soon MoMA, New York, were buying important works by the artist.


Although jealous of Jackson Pollock’s talent, and his ability to produce work of awe-inspiring beauty, he greatly respected the artist. He once recalled Pollock saying to him “you know more, but I feel more.” His passionate and at times difficult relationship with his wife, Elaine Fried, was not helped by their large intake of alcohol and mutual promiscuity. Despite breaking up on numerous occasions, they reunited for good in 1970 and remained together until her death in 1989.


In addition to paintings, the Abstract Expressionist artist produced a variety of multiples in the form of lithographs, drawings, etchings, and prints. The serial production of artworks enabled Willem de Kooning to illustrate the process of transformation of figural painting towards total abstraction. Furthermore, the artist has created sculptures in limited editions such as the famous bronze sculpture Large Torso, 1974 which was released in an edition of 7.


By 1961 Willem de Kooning became a fully-fledged American citizen. In 1968 a major retrospective was held in his native Holland for the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and another followed in 1986. He played a prominent role in the 25th Venice Biennale in 1950. His works can be found in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. In 1964 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1989 he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and died in 1997 aged 92. He leaves behind a remarkably if controversial body of work, that has become hugely influential to gestural painters working today. 

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