Saturday, October 20, 2012

Kooning, Willem de

oil, enamel, and charcoal on canvas
201 x 175.6 cm (79 1/8 x 69 1/8 in.)
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA

Willem de Kooning (1904 - 1997) was a Dutch American abstract expressionist artist who was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Kooning's parents were divorced when he was about five years old, and he was raised by his mother and stepfather. His early artistic training included eight years at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques. In the 1920s he worked as an assistant to the art director of a Rotterdam department store. In 1926 he emigrated to the US, where he worked illegally in New York as a commercial artist, window dresser, sign painter and carpenter. There he met other artists, including Arshile Gorky and worked for the Federal Art Project, for which he did murals. He was one of the thirty-eight artists chosen from a general invitation to New York City metropolitan artists to design and paint the 105 public murals at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. From 1935 in fact, he was able to devote himself entirely to painting. 

In 1938, he met Elaine Marie Fried, later known as Elaine de Kooning, whom he married in 1943. She also became a significant artist. In 1938, probably under the influence of Arshile Gorky, he embarked on a series of male figures, while simultaneously embarking on a more purist series of lyrically colored abstractions. As his work progressed, the heightened colors and elegant lines of the abstractions began to creep into the more figurative works, and the coincidence of figures and abstractions continued well into the 1940s. This period includes the representational but somewhat geometricized Woman and Standing Man, along with numerous untitled abstractions whose biomorphic forms increasingly suggest the presence of figures. By about 1945 the two tendencies seemed to fuse perfectly in Pink Angels. During the 1940s, he became increasingly identified with the Abstract Expressionist movement and was recognized as one of its leaders into the mid-1950s, while notoriously stating: "It is disastrous to name ourselves."

In the post-World War II era, he painted in a style that came to be referred to as Abstract expressionism or Action painting, and was part of a group of artists that came to be known as the Gestural branch of the New York School. He shared a studio with Arshile Gorky and his early pictures were influenced by Gorky's Surrealist style and by Picasso's painting. However, he was also inspired by Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko.

He taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1948 and at the Yale School of Art in 1950-51. In 1950, he was one of 17 prominent Abstract Expressionists and avant-garde artists to sign an open letter to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art accusing it of hostility towards "advanced art". From 1950 he developed his first "Women" pictures, which are notable for such vehemence of handling that they at first caused a scandal. He retained this type of figuration until the 1990s. At the same time he also worked on fairly abstract landscapes.

Kooning has been regarded as a leading exponent of Abstract Expressionism. His exceptional oeuvre is suffused with the duality of traditional figuration and Gestural Abstract painting. Naturalised as an American citizen in 1962, he left New York the following year to settle at Springs on Long Island. In 1964 he received one of the greatest distinctions awarded in America, the "Presidential Medal of Freedom". In 1970 he turned to sculpturing in bronze. He died in Springs, USA on 19 March 1997.