Occupation: Painter and sculptor
Movement: Abstract Expressionism
Education: Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques
“Woman V,” 1952-53
“Police Gazette,” 1955
“Merritt Parkway,” 1959
“The Door to the River,” 1960
“The Visit,” 1967
“The Man and the Big Blonde,” 1974
“Seated Woman on a Bench,” 1972-76
“Clamdigger (de Kooning),” 1972-76
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 times.
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 1950.
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 the world.
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 92.
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.
1904 - Born in Rotterdam
1916 - Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts & Letters
1916 - Apprenticed to commercial artists Jan and Jaap Gidding
1926 - Stows away on a ship to the United States
1934 - Joins the Artist's Union
1935 - Joins the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project
1948 - Mounts first solo exhibition
1948 - Instructor at Black Mountain College, Beria
1950–1951 - Instructor at Yale University, New Haven
1951 - Medal and Purchase Prize, Art Institute of Chicago
1959–1960 - Instructor at Yale University, New Haven
1997 - Dies in East Hampton, Long Island
1936 - Museum of Modern Art, New York
1942 - McMillen Inc., New York
1944 - Mortimer Brandt Gallery, New York
1948 - Egan Gallery, New York
1948 - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
1958 - Museum of Modern Art, New York
1965 - Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton
1965 - Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge
1968 - Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
1968 - Tate Gallery, London
1969 - Museum of Modern Art, New York
1971 - M. Knoedler and Company, New York
1974 - University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa
1976–1977 - Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC
1976–1977 - Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
1978 - Guggenheim Museum, New York
1979 - St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis
1979 - Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
1993 - C&M Arts, New York, NY
1993 - Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C.
1994 - National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
1995 - Thomas Ammann Fine Art, Zurich
1995 - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco
1996 - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
1996 - Kunstmuseum Bonn, Bonn
1997 - The Walker Art Center, San Francisco
2005–2006 - Kunstmuseum, Basel
2006 - L&M Arts, New York
2006 - The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
2006 - Leslie Sacks Fine Art, Los Angeles
2007 - Gagosian Gallery, New York
2009 - Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
2009 - Galerie Biedermann, Munich
2009 - Katharina Rich Perlow Gallery, New York
2009 - The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
2009 - Haunch of Venison, New York
2009 - Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin
2010 - Kettle's Yard, Cambridge
2010 - The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago
MUSEUMS / COLLECTIONS
Arts Institute of Chicago, Chicago
Guggenheim Museum, New York
Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Museum of Modern Art, New York
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice
Tate Gallery, London
Whitney Museum of Art, New York
BOOKS / PUBLICATIONS
“Willem de Kooning: Ten Paintings (1983-1985)” by John Elderfield and Lauren Mahony
“Willem de Kooning: Late Paintings (1981-1988)” by David Sylvester and Julie Sylvester
“Willem de Kooning” by Sally Yard
“De Kooning: A Retrospective” by John Elderfield and Jim Coddington
“Willem de Kooning Nonstop Cherchez la Femme” by Rosalind E. Krauss
“Willem de Kooning: Last Beginnings” by Klaus Kertess