Willem de Kooning

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Willem de Kooning in his studio, 1961 Signature of Willem de Kooning, 1977.JPG
Willem de Kooning, 1968

Willem de Kooning (born April 24, 1904 in Rotterdam , † March 19, 1997 in East Hampton , Long Island , New York ) was a Dutch painter who had been American since 1962 . He was one of the most important representatives of abstract expressionism and, along with Jackson Pollock, is considered a pioneer of action painting .

life and work

Childhood and youth

Willem de Kooning was the youngest of the five children and also the only son of Leendert de Kooning, a wine merchant and beverage manufacturer, and Cornelia Nobel, a bartender from the north of Rotterdam. His siblings were the eldest sister Maria Cornelia, born in 1899, the twins Cornelia and Adriana, who were born in 1901 and died in the same year, and the second Cornelia, who was born in 1902 and died a year later. The parents separated when Willem was just two years old and divorced a year and a half later, in 1907. The boy lived with his father for the first three years, then with his mother and stepfather. The young Willem developed a love-hate relationship with his mother Cornelia, known as Cora, who worked in a harbor bar and often had changing male acquaintances, which she brought home with her, which largely reflected his ambivalent image of women in work and in life: Cora was considered possessive, stubborn, manipulative and devouring in love: traits that were later found in the adult Willem de Kooning.

Design apprenticeship

In 1916, de Kooning began an apprenticeship in the Gidding brothers' studio with the graphic designer Jaap Gidding (1887–1955), who in 1920 gave him a job as an interior designer with Bernard Romein, the chief decorator of the Rotterdam department store Cohn & Donay . Influenced by the new types of painting by the recently founded De Stijl artist group around Piet Mondrian , he began to take evening courses at the Rotterdam Academie voor Beeldende Kunsten en Technische Wetenschappen (today's Willem de Kooning Academie ) until 1924 , where he was finally a master student of Johannes Gerardus Heijberg (1869–1952; Heyberg) was made familiar with classical painting techniques.

Art studies

Around 1924/25 he went on a study trip to Belgium with his friends Wim Klop and Benno Randolfi, where he visited the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels and studied at the Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp . At that time he dealt with the current contemporary art movements in Germany and Paris as well as with the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright . He was fascinated by the rapidly growing “ New World ”, which didn't seem so cramped and full of possibilities. After two unsuccessful attempts, he embarked illegally on July 18, 1926 in Belgium with the help of an acquaintance named Leo Cohan on the British freighter "SS Shelley" for the USA . De Kooning hid in the ship's engine room during the crossing.

De Kooning later stated in an interview with the English art critic David Sylvester in 1960 that “his spontaneous decision to emigrate to the United States was less connected with the goal of becoming a well-known artist than with the simple fact of being there hard work could make good money. "

America, friendship with Arshile Gorky

On August 15, 1926, de Kooning arrived in Newport News , Virginia . On the onward journey to Boston , he acquired his immigration papers and settled first in Hoboken , New Jersey , where he did odd jobs as a painter and house painter and carpenter. In 1927 de Kooning moved to New York , where he worked for the next eight years as a commercial artist, interior decorator, sign painter for shop lettering or as a facade painter for nightclubs. In 1929/30 he met the art critic John Graham, the gallery owner Sidney Janis and the artists Stuart Davis , David Smith and Arshile Gorky . Gorky, with whom de Kooning rented a joint studio, soon became a mentor and eventually one of his closest artist friends.

The years of depression, the beginning of the artistic career

By 1934 at the latest, de Kooning, who had previously only painted occasionally on weekends, had given up all reservations about a free artistic career. Benefiting from the artist aid programs initiated by Franklin D. Roosevelt , which were intended as a job creation measure during the Great Depression , he was able to participate in the WPA Federal Art Project and dedicate himself exclusively to artistic painting. For the WPA Federal Art Project numerous designs for wall paintings were created , some of which were never realized, because de Kooning had to leave the project again in July 1937 due to his lack of US citizenship (de Kooning did not receive his naturalization certificate until 1962). “But this year,” says de Kooning, “I had such a fantastic feeling that I came to a new attitude. I decided to paint and do jobs on the side. ”That same year, de Kooning was commissioned to do part of the Medicine mural for the Hall of Pharmacy at the 1939 World's Fair in New York, which first attracted art critics to the new artist whose pictures differed so completely in their restlessness from the hitherto familiar, factual figuration of the outgoing American realism .

Elaine, Black Paintings

Also in 1937, at the American Artists School, he met the art student Elaine Fried , who was 14 years his junior and with whom a passionate and changeable partnership would soon begin, which was permeated by a lifelong obsession of alcoholism, financial difficulties, love affairs, arguments and breakups. In 1939 Elaine moved into his New York studio; the two married on December 9, 1943. At this time de Kooning was working on his first series of portrait paintings of standing or seated men such as Two Men Standing , Man and Seated Figure (Classic Male), which he partially combined with self-portraits as in Portrait with Imaginary Brother (all around 1938-39). At that time, de Kooning's works were still very much based on Gorky's surrealist imagery and had the post-cubist influence of Picasso . That only changed when de Kooning made the acquaintance of the painter Franz Kline , who was six years his junior and who had also begun under the figurative-cubist character of American realism and had now found a monochrome dynamic. Franz Kline, who died early, was one of de Kooning's closest artist friends. Kline's influence is evident in de Kooning's calligraphic black paintings of the period. (see → Black Paintings ).


Chaim Soutine Woman in Pink , around 1924 Oil on canvas, 73 × 54.3 cm Saint Louis Art Museum

Willem de Kooning Pink Angels , around 1945 Oil and charcoal on canvas, 132 × 101 cm Frederick R. Weisman Foundation, Los Angeles (external web links, please note copyrights )

The simultaneous liaison with Elaine may also have influenced and fostered his first series of woman pictures: Elaine was working on similar subjects at the time. Around 1939/1940 de Kooning's figurative works mix with Joan Miró's amoeba-like formal language . Until the mid-1940s, de Kooning's visual language changed continuously: series and the examination of abstraction and the constantly changing arrangement of human figures in the "dissolution process" should soon form the focus of his work, including Picasso's monumental works Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) and Guernica (1937) may have served as models. He elevated the “non-completion” of the individual image to the serial principle, which he was to implement from 1947 to 1949 in his second woman cycle. The work Pink Angels (around 1945), as an artistic homage to Chaim Soutines Woman in Pink from 1924, is a characteristic panel painting by de Kooning from this phase.

Jackson Pollock and the first generation of the "New York School"

Around 1942 Willem de Kooning met Jackson Pollock and his later wife Lee Krasner in the New York artist meeting place The Club on 39th Street, which united the "first generation" of the New York School next to the Cedars Tavern . For Club were next to de Kooning's girlfriend Elaine and painter friends such as Arshile Gorky, Stuart Davis, Barnett Newman , Mark Rothko or Clyfford Still , the writers John Ashbery , Barbara Guest , Kenneth Koch and Frank O'Hara .

In the same year there was the group exhibition American and French Paintings at the Mc Millen Gallery, in which, in addition to de Kooning and Pollock, Stuart Davis and Lee Krasner, the Europeans Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso and the Fauvist Henri Matisse were shown in comparison. With the choleric Jackson Pollock, de Kooning had a friendship that was sealed under excessive alcoholism and which ended in rivalry in the late 1940s. In 1948 de Kooning had his first solo exhibition at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York, which was highly praised but not commercially successful ; the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) bought the monochrome work Painting (1948). In the same year his artist friend Arshile Gorky committed suicide, and de Kooning interrupted the painting for a short time. At the invitation of Josef Albers , he began teaching fine arts at Black Mountain College in North Carolina , where he met the musician John Cage . Financially on the floor, de Kooning finally painted with cheap lacquer in the late 1940s.

Gesture and action, international success

Despite all the artistic competition, de Kooning and Pollock inspired each other and even “prospered” from each other in terms of their material language: While Pollock resorted to de Kooning's black radiator colors and increasingly reduced the colors in his work, de Kooning dared to use images such as Attic (1949) and Excavation (1950) first worked on large formats in the style of Pollock and blew up the painting grounds prescribed by Cubism and Surrealism. De Kooning developed gestural painting himself and does not go back to Pollock's actionist dripping . De Kooning's works of this time refer in their tradition to the German informal painter Hans Hofmann . The equally respected and controversial art critic Clement Greenberg profusely saw them as "the most important artists of the 20th century", and so it was not surprising that both of MoMA's founding director Alfred H. Barr , in June 1950 as the protagonists of action painting were chosen to make a decisive contribution to modern American art at the 25th Biennale of Venice to afford the 1950s. De Kooning sent the work Excavation to the Biennale, which was subsequently bought by the Art Institute of Chicago . For the 60th anniversary of American painting, the artist received the Logan Medal, endowed with 2000 US dollars, in addition to the purchase price . The Biennale marked the international breakthrough for de Kooning and at the same time marked another turning point in his oeuvre. In 1951, de Kooning took part in the highly regarded 9th Street Art Exhibition ("The Ninth Street Show"), which marked the beginning of the New York avant-garde of the post-war period.

“More Women ”, radicalization of imagery

Despite his sudden fame, the artist, again driven by doubts about artistic self-discovery, withdrew from any stylistic categorization and began to radicalize his imagery in the third cycle of women in the biennial year . In the provocative figurative cycle, de Kooning broke with all taboos of the time and celebrated the female figure with violent impasto strokes as a buxom, fleshy, grotesquely deformed demon who seems to mock the viewer with a malicious grimace . The exhibition of the Woman pictures in the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1953 turned into a tangible cultural scandal that shocked the prudish USA of the 1950s. De Kooning remained largely unaffected by this dispute over his work, which was ostracized by the press as "vulgar and vulgar", and in the following years created numerous series of pictures of a similar character in even larger formats. MoMA bought some works in the series, including Woman I (1950/52), for the 27th Biennale in 1954. On display were works by Ben Shahn and 27 paintings and drawings by de Kooning.

In 1955 Willem de Kooning left his wife Elaine and moved in with the artist Joan Ward. On January 29, 1956, their daughter Johanna Lisbeth "Lisa" was born. That same year, on August 11th, Jackson Pollock was killed in a car accident. From this point on, the female motif suddenly disappeared from de Kooning's works and was replaced by expressionist big city scenes and landscapes.

Abstract Landscapes , Retreat to Long Island

From 1957 to 1963 de Kooning devoted himself almost exclusively to gestural-abstract landscapes in increasingly lighter colors, which he mostly named after places, streets or traffic signs. In this abstract allegory of a car journey or a “journey through time” he evidently indicated his own retreat from the big city with the search for (his own) past and origins. De Kooning received similar travel impressions that Jack Kerouac tried to translate into literature or Robert Frank photographed, and on his long journeys to the southern tip of Long Island he worked in memories of the Dutch seascapes from his youth. De Kooning divided these series into Abstract Urban Landscapes (1955–58), Abstract Parkway Landscapes (1957–61) and Abstract Pastoral Landscapes (1960–63) Typical works of this time are Gotham News (1955–56), Backyard on 10th Street ( 1956) or July 4th (1957) and Montauk Highway (1958).

Along with the genesis of these series, the artist actually withdrew to Springs near East Hampton on Long Island from the end of the 1950s , which was a popular artist colony at the time. In 1959, de Kooning bought a country house there, which the skilled craftsman converted into a spacious studio in the following years and finally moved into in 1963. It is very likely that he fled the hustle and bustle of the rapidly growing New York art scene, because his exhibition of Abstract Parkway Landscapes in the Sidney Janis Gallery was a great commercial success and made him the new "star" of the New York art scene for a short time documenta II in Kassel the increased attention of the European art market . As at the first participation in the Biennale, De Kooning had fears that he would have to meet certain expectations of the audience or to meet the “terminology-happy” reviews of art critics, above all Greenberg . In addition, with Robert Rauschenberg , followed by Jasper Johns , Roy Lichtenstein , Andy Warhol and many others, a new generation of artists came to the fore, which in turn reacted objectively to urbanization , advertising and consumption : the age of Pop Art dawned. Rauschenberg "acknowledged" this ironically by simply erasing a work by de Kooning in 1959, whom he revered as an "artistic father figure".

Rome, Women in the Country

De Kooning spent the winter of 1959/60 in Rome , where he visited the painter Piero Dorazio , among others . From 1960, de Kooning finally began the extensive expansion of his house on Long Island, which he converted into a glass studio according to his own plans and only completed in 1969. With the work Pastorale , which was still created in New York, he finished his monumental Abstract Landscapes and returned to figurative painting with the fourth Woman series, although its execution was closer to the Landscapes than the earlier Women series. De Kooning called this series, which was created from 1965 to 1972, Women in the Country . Characteristic works from this period are Women Singing I – III (1965–66) and The Visit (1966/67).

long Island

In March 1963, de Kooning had moved into his house on Long Island. The artist felt the move was a relief and said he had “[…] started all over again. Somehow I felt good when I was near the lake. Most of my paintings emerged from this. ”De Kooning took up the motif of the“ woman in an abstract landscape ”again and again in his late work, albeit in a calmer, lighter color scheme. In 1964, de Kooning was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by US President Lyndon B. Johnson , and in the same year he took part in documenta III in Kassel. From April 8 to March 2, 1965, the first Willem de Kooning retrospective in the USA took place at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton , Massachusetts .

Europe, sculptures, alcohol problems

Reclining Figure , Bronze, (1969–1982), Rotterdam
Seated Woman , Bronze, (1969–1980), Rotterdam

Organized by the New York Museum of Modern Art, de Kooning's first extensive touring position in Europe took place in 1968/69, with the exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam Willem de Kooning traveled to his native country for the first time since 1926; for the exhibition at the Tate Gallery , London , he met Francis Bacon . Further stations of the painter in Europe were Paris and Rome. Inspired by his trip to Europe, de Kooning first sought the sculptural implementation of his work with bronze sculptures from 1969/70 . From the early 1970s he withdrew more and more on long excursions to the seclusion of the coastal regions of Long Island, experimented in the studio with the implementation of the figure in drawings, lithographs and sculptures and was increasingly plagued by creative break-ins and self-doubt. De Kooning, who was a heavy drinker all his life and often got drunk to the point of unconsciousness, was now increasingly struggling existentially with alcoholism , which, however, did not diminish his creative power: as in an explosive, liberating intoxication, he painted in a very short time from 1975 to 1977 numerous large formats with unbroken, colored impasto abstractions that constantly revolve around his favorite subjects: eroticism, women and landscapes. Critics saw de Kooning's artistic balance sheet in this unrest-driven late work. In 1978 his wife Elaine, from whom he had not divorced, returned to him, tried to get him away from alcohol and looked after him until the end of her life.

Illness, late work and death

At the beginning of the 1980s, the artist fell increasingly into disrepair: de Kooning fell ill with Alzheimer's disease and his health deteriorated drastically, so that he soon had to be supported by assistants in the studio. On the occasion of the artist's 80th birthday, at the turn of the year 1983/1984 the Whitney Museum of American Art showed the large retrospective Willem de Kooning: Drawings, Paintings, Sculpture, which in the following months was held at the Akademie der Künste , Berlin , and the Center Georges, among others Pompidou made a stop in Paris ; de Kooning received the National Medal of Arts from US President Ronald Reagan for his life's work . Elaine de Kooning passed away on February 1, 1989, and Willem's daughter Lisa and her partner, attorney John L. Eastman, took over the business of the decrepit father. Eastman, the brother of Linda McCartney , would later become Vice President of the Willem de Kooning Foundation . In the same year, 1989, was sold at Sotheby's for 20.8 million dollars Interchange , a painting from 1955, sold at auction. This sum was the highest ever paid for the work of a living artist. In the same year de Kooning was awarded the Praemium Imperiale .

Although de Kooning was no longer able to recognize family members or closest friends in the last years of his life, he still had a productive creative period in the 1980s until his death, in which he painted more than 300 oil paintings. While some critics deny the artistic value of his late work, others speak of a "miraculous regaining of concentration and ambition", which led to a solution to longstanding problems and a renewal of his art. In doing so, de Kooning developed the style characteristic of his older work, which, in contrast to the dense compositions and complex colors of earlier creative periods, is characterized by simple shapes and bright colors and is sometimes compared with the works of Piet Mondrian .

Willem de Kooning died on March 19, 1997 at the age of 92 in his studio in Springs / East Hampton on Long Island.

honors and awards

The Willem de Kooning Academie in Rotterdam is named after him.

Exhibitions (selection)

Selection of works

  • 1947: Valentine . Enamel and oil paint on paper and wood, Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • 1948: Painting . Enamel and oil paint on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • 1950: Woman . Enamel and charcoal on paper mounted on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • 1950-1952: Woman I . Oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • 1952: Woman II . Oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • 1951-1953: Woman III . Oil on canvas, private property
  • 1952: Seated Woman . Crayon, pastel and oil colors on two sheets of paper, Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • 1953: Woman VI . Oil on canvas, Carnegie Museum of Art , Pittsburgh
  • 1954: Untitled (Torso) , ink on paper, Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • 1955: Gotham News , oil on canvas, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo , New York 
  • 1955: Interchange
  • 1955: Police Gazette
  • 1956: Easter Monday , oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art , New York
  • 1958: Suburb in Havana
  • 1960: A Tree in Naples - oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • 1963: Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point , Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
  • 1965: Woman . Charcoal on tracing paper, Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • 1974: Large Torso , bronze
  • 1977: Untitled XXIII
  • 1977: Untitled XXV brought in 2007 the hitherto highest price of a post-war work in the world at $ 27 million


Writings by Willem de Kooning


  • Edvard Lieber: Willem de Kooning: Reflections in the Studio . Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York 2000, ISBN 0-8109-4560-6
  • Barbara Hess: Willem de Kooning . Taschen Verlag, 2004, ISBN 3-8228-2133-0
  • Klaus Kertess, Ralph Ubl: De Kooning: Painting 1960–1980 . Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern 2005, ISBN 3-7757-1629-7
  • Julie Sylvester, David Sylvester: Willem de Kooning. Late Paintings . Schirmer / Mosel, Munich 2006, ISBN 3-8296-0226-X

Web links

Commons : Willem de Kooning  - Collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. ^ A b Willem de Kooning: Painting. Museum of Modern Art, New York, accessed June 8, 2010 .
  2. ^ A b Willem de Kooning: Woman I. Museum of Modern Art, New York, accessed June 8, 2010 .
  3. ^ A b Willem de Kooning: Gotham News. (No longer available online.) Albright-Knox Art Gallery, archived from the original on June 5, 2010 ; Retrieved June 8, 2010 . Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / www.albrightknox.org
  4. Willem de Kooning: July 4th. National Gallery of Australia, accessed June 8, 2010 .
  5. ^ Willem de Kooning: Women Singing I – III. Tate Collection, accessed June 8, 2010 .
  6. ^ Willem de Kooning: The Visit. Tate Collection, accessed June 8, 2010 .
  7. ^ Willem de Kooning: Valentine. Museum of Modern Art, New York, accessed June 8, 2010 .
  8. ^ Willem de Kooning: Woman. Museum of Modern Art, New York, accessed June 8, 2010 .
  9. ^ Willem de Kooning: Woman II. Museum of Modern Art, New York, accessed June 8, 2010 .
  10. Willem de Kooning: Seated Woman. Museum of Modern Art, New York, accessed June 8, 2010 .
  11. Willem de Kooning: Woman VI. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, accessed June 8, 2010 .
  12. ^ Willem de Kooning: Untitled (Torso). Museum of Modern Art, New York, accessed June 8, 2010 .
  13. ^ Willem de Kooning: Easter Monday. Metropolitan Museum, New York. Retrieved March 20, 2016 .
  14. ^ Willem de Kooning: A Tree in Naples. Museum of Modern Art, New York, accessed June 8, 2010 .
  15. ^ Willem de Kooning: Woman. Museum of Modern Art, New York, accessed June 8, 2010 .
  16. ^ Willem de Kooning: Large Torso. (No longer available online.) Frieder Burda Collection, archived from the original on October 28, 2007 ; Retrieved June 8, 2010 . Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / www.sammlung-frieder-burda.de
  17. ^ Willem de Kooning: Untitled XXIII. artnet.de, accessed on June 8, 2010 .
  18. ^ Willem de Kooning: Untitled XXV. artnet.de, accessed on June 8, 2010 .

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Henk van Kampen: Trace your Dutch roots: Willem de Kooning, a case study. Retrieved July 7, 2008 .
  2. ^ Don Gray: Willem de Kooning, What Do His Paintings Mean? (No longer available online.) 1984, archived from the original on September 28, 2011 ; Retrieved July 7, 2008 (English). Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / www.jessieevans.com
  3. ^ Willem de Kooning. Instituut voor Nederlandse Geschiedenis, accessed July 7, 2008 (Dutch).
  4. ^ Willem de Kooning. (No longer available online.) Museum De Pont, archived from the original on October 9, 2006 ; Retrieved July 7, 2008 (English). Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / www.depont.nl
  5. ^ David Sylvester: Interviews with American Artists. Yale University Press 2001, ISBN 0-300-09204-0
  6. a b quoted from Horst Richter: Painting of the 1960s. DuMont, Cologne 1990, p. 90, ISBN 3-7701-2272-0
  7. Cornelius Tittel: King of the canvas, King of the world. Die Welt Online, April 24, 2005, accessed July 7, 2008 .
  8. Regine Prange: Jackson Pollock and Abstract Expressionism  ( page no longer available , search in web archivesInfo: The link was automatically marked as defective. Please check the link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. . Art history worksheets, Deubner Verlag, p. 12 (accessed December 12, 2007)@1@ 2Template: Dead Link / www.kabonline.de  
  9. ^ Robert Hughes: Seeing the Face in the Fire . Essay in Time Magazine, May 30, 1994
  10. ^ Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipient Willem De Kooning. Retrieved July 18, 2008 .
  11. See Müller-Jensen K: The old work - a tightrope walk. Karlsruhe, Edition Rottloff, 2007.
  12. ^ Robert Storr: "A Painter's Testament: De Kooning in the Eighties" MoMA , No. 24 (1997), pp. 14-18.
  13. Robert Rosenblum: On "de Kooning's Late Style" Art Journal , Vol. 48, No. 3, (1989), pp. 248-249
  14. See Robert Storr: “A Painter's Testament: De Kooning in the Eighties” MoMA , No. 24 (1997), pp. 14-18.
  15. ^ Members: Willem de Kooning. American Academy of Arts and Letters, accessed February 25, 2019 .
  16. nationalacademy.org: Past Academicians "D" ( Memento of the original from January 16, 2014 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. (accessed on March 13, 2015) @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / www.nationalacademy.org