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Willem De Kooning

Willem De Kooning Biography

De Kooning had painted women regularly in the early 1940s and again from 1947 to 1949. The biomorphic shapes of his early abstractions can be interpreted as female symbols. But it was not until 1950 that he began to explore the subject of women exclusively. In the summer of that year he began Woman I (located at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City), which went through innumerable metamorphoses before it was finished in 1952.

During this period he also created other paintings of women. These works were shown at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1953 and caused a sensation, chiefly because they were figurative when most of his fellow Abstract Expressionists were painting abstractly and because of their blatant technique and imagery. The savagely applied pigment and the use of colors that seem vomited on his canvas combine to reveal a woman all too congruent with some of modern man's most widely held sexual fears. The toothy snarls, overripe, pendulous breasts, vacuous eyes, and blasted extremities imaged the darkest Freudian insights. He also had many paintings that seemed to hearken back to early Mesopotamian / Akkadian works, with the large, almost "all-seeing" eyes.

The Woman paintings II through VI (1952-53) are all variants on this theme, as are Woman and Bicycle (1953; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) and Two Women in the Country (1954). The deliberate vulgarity of these paintings contrasts with the French painter Jean Dubuffet's no less harsh Corps de Dame series of 1950, in which the female, formed with a rich topography of earth colours, relates more directly to universal symbols.

By 1955, however, de Kooning seems to have turned to this symbolic aspect of woman, as suggested by the title of his Woman as Landscape, in which the vertical figure seems almost absorbed into the abstract background. There followed a series of landscapes such as Police Gazette, Gotham News, Backyard on Tenth Street, Parc Rosenberg, Suburb in Havana, Door to the River, and Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point, which display an evolution from compositional and coloristic complexity to a broadly painted simplicity.

About 1963, the year he moved permanently to East Hampton, Long Island, de Kooning returned to depicting women in such paintings as Pastorale and Clam Diggers. He re-explored the theme in the mid-1960s in paintings that were as controversial as his earlier women. In these works, which have been read as satiric attacks on the female anatomy, de Kooning painted with a flamboyant lubricity in keeping with the uninhibited subject matter. His later works, such as Whose Name Was Writ in Water and Untitled III, are lyrical, lush, and shimmering with light and reflections on water. He turned more and more during his late years to the production of clay sculpture.

In the 1980s de Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and a court declared him unfit to manage his estate, which was turned over to conservators. As the style of his later works began to take on an abrupt change, his vintage works drew increasing profits; at Sotheby's auctions Pink Lady (1944) sold for US$3.6 million in 1987 and Interchange (1955) brought $20.6 million in 1989. His wife, the former Elaine Fried, died from lung cancer, aged 70, in 1989.

There is much debate over the relevance and significance of his later paintings, which became clean, sparse, and almost graphic, while alluding to the biomorphic lines of his early works. Some say his mental condition and attempts to recover from a life of alcoholism had rendered him unable to carry out the mastery indicated in his early works, while others see these late works as prophesizing the clean, surface-oriented painters of the 1990s and 21st century - and having a direct correlation to contemporary painters such as Brice Marden. Still others who knew de Kooning personally claim that his late paintings were being taken away and sold before he was able to finish them.

Select Timeline

  • 1920 he went to work for the art director of a large department store.
  • 1926 de Kooning entered the United States as a stowaway on a British freighter
  • 1927 he moved to a studio in Manhattan
  • 1928 de Kooning began to paint still life and figure compositions reflecting School of Paris and Mexican influences
  • 1935 de Kooning began to work on the WPA (Works Progress Administration) Federal Art Project
  • 1938,de Kooning embarked on a series of male figures, including Two Men Standing, Man, and Seated Figure (Classic Male)
  • 1938 de Kooning met Elaine Marie Fried, later known as Elaine de Kooning
  • 1943 married Elaine Marie Fried
  • 1948 taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina

Select Exhibitions

  • 2006 - Willem de Kooning, Untitled I Willem de Kooning: Paintings 1975 - 1978 - L&M Arts (New York, New York, USA)
  • 2005 - Prints: Works by Modern Masters - C. Grimaldis Gallery (Baltimore, Maryland, USA)
  • 2004 - Willem de Kooning Garden in Delft: de Kooning Landscapes, 1928 - 1988, Mitchell-Innes & Nash (New York, New York, USA)
  • 2001 - Willem de Kooning, Untitled Willem de Kooning '1987 Paintings', Matthew Marks Gallery (New York, New York, USA)
  • 1999 - Willem de Kooning, Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG (Zurich, Switzerland)
  • 1995 - Willem de Kooning June - September 1995, Thomas Ammann Fine Art AG (Zurich, Switzerland)

Select Artwork

  • Queen of Hearts - 1943
  • Asheville - 1948
  • Excavation - 1950
  • Composition - 1955
  • …Whose Name Was Writ in Water - 1975
  • Pink landscape - ca. 1938
  • Figure at Barnes Hole - 1962 - oil counterproof on wove paper
  • Woman I, 1952 - pastel - crayon and graphite on wove paper
  • Legend and Fact - 1940 - duco enamel on gypsum board
  • The Marshes - 1971 - lithograph
  • Minnie Mouse - 1971 - lithograph
  • Woman at Clearwater Beach - 1970 - lithograph


  • "An artist is forced by others to paint out of his own free will."
  • "My interest in desperation lies only in that sometimes I find myself having become desperate. Very seldom do I start out that way. I can see of course that, in the abstract, thinking and all activity is rather desperate."
  • "The attitude that nature is chaotic and that the artist puts order into it is a very absurd point of view, I think. All that we can hope for is to put some order into ourselves."
  • "
  • Whatever an artist's personal feelings are, as soon as an artist fills a certain area on the canvas or circumscribes it, he becomes historical. He acts from or upon other artists."


  • Willem de Kooning - by Sally Yard, Rizzoli International Publications (June 15, 1997)
  • de Kooning: An American Master - by Mark Stevens, Annalyn Swan, Knopf; Reprint edition (April 4, 2006)
  • Willem De Kooning (Modern Masters Series) - by Harry F. Gaugh, Abbeville Press; New Ed edition (October 1983)
  • Essential, The: Willem de Kooning - By Abram, Wonderland Press
  • Willem De Kooning: Reflections in the Studio - by Edvard Lieber, Harry N. Abrams (May 1, 2000)
  • Willem De Kooning: The Late Paintings, the 1980s - by Willem De Kooning, Robert Storr, Gary Garrels, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Distributed Art Pub Inc (Dap); 1st ed edition (September 1995)

Quick Facts

  • Willem de Kooning has served as inspiration for the Welsh band Manic Street Preachers for three songs: "Interiors (Song for Willem de Kooning)", "His Last Painting" (about his battle with Alzheimer's), and the song "Door to the River" (named after the painting).
  • In 1981 de Kooning's productivity was rising. Again he came with a new stylistic direction, but he remained abstract


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