Willem de Kooning is one of the most important artists of the twentieth century, a true "painter's painter" whose protean work continues to inspire many artists. In the thirties and forties, along with Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock, he became a key figure in the revolutionary American movement of abstract expressionism. Of all the painters in that group, he worked the longest and was the most prolific, creating powerful, startling images well into the 1980s. The first major biography of de Kooning captures both the life and work of this complex, romantic figure in American culture. Ten years in the making, and based on previously unseen letters and documents as well as on hundreds of interviews, this is a fresh, richly detailed, and masterful portrait. The young de Kooning overcame an unstable, impoverished, and often violent early family life to enter the Academie in Rotterdam, where he learned both classic art and guild techniques. Arriving in New York as a stowaway from Holland in 1926, he underwent a long struggle to become a painter and an American, developing a passionate friendship with his fellow immigrant Arshile Gorky, who was both a mentor and an inspiration. During the Depression, de Kooning emerged as a central figure in the bohemian world of downtown New York, surviving by doing commercial work and painting murals for the WPA. His first show at the Egan Gallery in 1948 was a revelation. Soon, the critics Harold Rosenberg and Thomas Hess were championing his work, and de Kooning took his place as the charismatic leader of the New York school--just as American art began to dominate the international scene. Dashingly handsome and treated like a movie star on the streets of downtown New York, de Kooning had a tumultuous marriage to Elaine de Kooning, herself a fascinating character of the period. At the height of his fame, he spent his days painting powerful abstractions and intense, disturbing pictures of the female figure--and his nights living on the edge, drinking, womanizing, and talking at the Cedar bar with such friends as Franz Kline and Frank O'Hara. By the 1960s, exhausted by the feverish art world, he retreated to the Springs on Long Island, where he painted an extraordinary series of lush pastorals. In the 1980s, as he slowly declined into what was almost certainly Alzheimer's, he created a vast body of haunting and ethereal late work. This is an authoritative and brilliant exploration of the art, life, and world of an American master.
He was born in Rotterdam in 1904, and stowed away to the U.S. in the mid-twenties. He was already a master draughtsman, and went to work in New York as a commercial artist and window dresser. He made a pretty good living that way. In the 1930s, though, he abandoned commercial art in favor of the more dangerous path: “pure” art. De Kooning quit his jobs at the height of the Depression and just in time to help formulate a major wave in American (and world) painting: Abstract Expressionism.
He finally made it big in 1948 with a show at the Egan Gallery. He bucked expectations—and Abstract Expressionism—by next producing a series of more or less figurative works, the Woman series. These scribbley, colorful and larger-than-life canvasses were inspired by his wife and solidified de Kooning’s reputation as an artist first among equals. “I might work on a painting for a month,” he said, “but it has to look like I painted it in a minute.” A New York minute, at that: spontaneous and confrontational, a collision of high and low, of the child-like and the anciently wise.
De Kooning was a true student of art history: not of the books or the critics, but of the pictures themselves. He learned from and incorporated into his own works the styles of everyone from the painters of the walls of Lascaux to Picasso. As the critic Harold Rosenberg said,
If you had your own idea, that was it, you were stuck with it. The history of painting, however, contained endless inventions which the living painter could make his own. Even inventing a thing that had already been invented was an act of creation. De Kooning likes to call this ‘inventing the harpsichord’—the fact that we have the harpsichord, and even the piano that superseded it, does not prevent the invention that brought it into being from being legitimately repeated.
Stevens’ and Swan’s book is a delight for both art fans and gossip hounds, and it’s easy to see why it one the 2005 Pulitzer for biography. De Kooning was a wild man and he died the tragic death of the untamable. He lived a life that defied expectations and broke a lot of hearts. He painted a legacy that fills hearts and eyes with delight and wonder, and that will outlive us all.
Originally published in Curled Up with a Good Book