Dutch-born painter Willem de Kooning was one of the most important members of post-war American art, defining it with his brand of Abstract Expressionism, which emphasizes spontaneous creation and emotional intensity.
He was part of the New York School vanguard, a loose association of artists comprising greats such as Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock.
Unlike many other artists, de Kooning’s works are hard to typify. They ranged from abstracts with large washes of color to gestural, fleshy nudes — but they all showcase his wide-ranging vocabulary and dynamism in creation.
Born in Rotterdam on April 24, 1904, de Kooning studied at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques. In 1926, he left for New York, as a stowaway on a boat, and scraped by working as a commercial artist, sign painter, window dresser, and carpenter.
In New York, he met other artists including John Graham, Stuart Davis, and Gorky, with whom later he shared a studio.
Gorky and Pablo Picasso influenced his early work, but de Kooning was also taken by the gestural qualities of the New York School. 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.
As his work progressed, the two styles merged. This resulted in hybrid works such as the geometric but representational “Woman” and “Standing Man”. In the late 1940s, de Kooning's work began to achieve a happy fusion between abstraction and shades of figuration.
Women fascinated the artist. He painted them intermittently in the 1940s and 1950s. His later works caused a scandal for his vehement, almost violent portrayal of them — with slashed bodies, pendulous breasts and sadistic grins.
From the late 1950s to 1960s, de Kooning created abstract works inspired by landscapes more than the human figure. They feature calligraphic tendencies and broad brushstrokes reminiscent of works by Franz Kline. Numerous shows and surveys of his work filled those two decades.
He moved to East Hampton, Long Island, permanently in 1963, where he continued to paint. In the 1980s, he created Rothko-like abstract paintings with few colors and graphic compositions. The artistic merit and relevance of these works remain disputed.
De Kooning died in 1997 at the age of 92 after reportedly battling Alzheimer’s disease in his later years.
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