WILLEM DE KOONING (1904-1997)
Born: April 24, 1904
Died: March 19, 1997
Dutch-born painter Willem de Kooning was one of the most important members
of post-war American art, helping to define the era with his brand of Abstract
Expressionism, which emphasizes spontaneous creation and emotional intensity.
He was part of the New York School, a loose association of artists comprising
greats such as Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock.
De Kooning’s painting ‘Woman – III’, created between 1951-1953, holds the
record for the most expensive painting by the artist ever sold. At $137 million, the
price it fetched at a 2006 auction, it is the fourth most expensive painting of all
De Kooning was born in Rotterdam. Having found his calling early, he quit school
and apprenticed at a commercial decorating and design firm. He simultaneously
joined night classes at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques in
1916, where he studied for the next eight years. In 1924, he spent a year studying
in Belgium, and then returned to the Netherlands.
De Kooning made his way to the United States as a stowaway on a ship in 1926.
He did a variety of jobs in different parts of the country, eventually settling in
Hoboken, New Jersey as a house painter. The following year, he moved to a studio
in Manhattan. He made a living working variously as a carpenter, commercial
designer, sign painter and window dresser. Meeting a group of New York artists
such as Arshile Gorky, Stuart Davis and John Graham proved to be important.
Eventually, he was able to live on painting alone from mid-1930s.
He made murals for the Federal Art Project from 1935-39. His early works were
influenced by Gorky and Pablo Picasso, but de Kooning was also taken by the
more gestural qualities of the New York School, comprising Jackson Pollock
and Franz Kline. In 1938, he started painting male figures, including ‘Two Men
Standing’ and ‘Seated Figure (Classic Male)’, while working at the same time on a
series of lyrically-colored abstract pieces.
Abstract Expressionism and the ‘Woman’ series
De Kooning was an important leader of the Abstract Expressionist movement, and
had his first solo show in 1948 in New York. He also taught during this period in
North Carolina, at the Black Mountain College and in the Yale School of Art in
Women fascinated the artist and he painted them intermittently in the 1940s
and 1950s. His later works caused a scandal for his vehement, almost violent
and vulgar portrayal of women — with slashed bodies, large, drooping breasts
and sadistic grins. These paintings were exhibited in 1953 at the Sidney Janis
Gallery, causing a scandal. He created six paintings in the ‘Woman’ series, of
which ‘Woman III’ is the most expensive de Kooning painting ever sold. It fetched
$137 million at a 2006 auction, making it one of the most expensive paintings of
However, from the late 1950s to 1960s, the artist started creating abstract works
that were more inspired by landscapes than the human figure. These works feature
calligraphic tendencies and broad brushstrokes that are reminiscent of works by
Franz Kline. These two decades were also filled with numerous shows and surveys
of his work.
He met Elaine Marie Fried in 1938, and eventually married her in 1943. She
too earned renown as an artist and came to be known as Elaine de Kooning. His
marriage, however, was difficult, and not helped by alcohol and infidelity on both
their parts. They separated at the end of the 1950s. However, he was reunited with
his wife in the mid 1970s. They remained together until Elaine’s death in 1989.
He obtained American citizenship in 1962, left New York and shifted to East
Hampton, Long Island, the following year. He began painting women during
this period, again in a controversial manner that invited attacks on his works. On
holiday in Rome in 1968, he bumped into Herzl Emanuel, an old friend. While
staying with him, he began work on small clay sculptures, following the same style
of figuration as that of the ‘Woman’ series. He had them cast in bronze upon his
return to the United States.
By 1980s, he was apparently suffering from Alzheimer’s. He died in 1997, aged
Unlike many other artists, de Kooning’s works are hard to typify. His paintings
ranged from abstracts with large washes of color to gestural, fleshy nudes — but
they all showcase his wide-ranging vocabulary and dynamism in creation.
He was prolific during the 1980s though the quality of the work from this period
has been questioned. Opinions vary greatly, with some critics hailing the more than
300 canvases from this period as something new and prophetic. Others argue that
alcoholism and his illness had taken away from the mastery that his earlier works
had achieved. Needless to add, it’s his vintage works that have always sold for
record prices at auctions.
His retrospectives have been held by major museums of the world, some in his
time, some after his death as well. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, held
his first retrospective in 1968 and again in 2011-2012; similar shows have also
been hosted by the Whitney Museum of American Art and the National Gallery of
Art, Washington D.C.
Date of Birth: April 24, 1904
Place of Birth: Rotterdam, Netherlands
Occupation: Painter and sculptor
Movement: Abstract Expressionism
Education: Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques
See His Work At: Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C.; Museum of Modern Art,
New York; Guggenheim Museum, New York
Date of Death: March 19, 1997
LOTS SOLD (1987 - 2009)
TOTAL SALES (1987 - 2009)
By Judd Tully | November 14, 2014
The $1.36 billion auction week of postwar and contemporary evening sales in New York had its low-key finale at Phillips on Thursday, turning in a solid though hardly exceptional $51,964,750. The...
By BLOUIN ARTINFO | November 12, 2014
Phillips Contemporary Art evening sale closes out a week of major New York auctions, offering up works by such artists as Martin Kippenberger, Andy Warhol, Willem De Koonig, Tauba Auerbach, and...
By Judd Tully | May 14, 2014
In a night rich in $20 million-plus offerings, Christie’s brought in a mind-boggling $744,944,000 in its Post-War and contemporary art evening sale at Rockefeller Center on Tuesday, the highest...