Dutch-born American painter, whose work is characterized by energetic brushstrokes and twisted forms, and by an ongoing dialogue between human imagery and abstraction. De Kooning was a leading member of the abstract expressionism movement, which sought to capture the spontaneous and often vigorous
act of painting through the artist's personal gestures.
De Kooning was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. From 1916 onward he received classical instruction in drawing and painting at the Rotterdam Academie van Beeldende Kunsten, and at the Acad?mie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, Belgium.
He immigrated to the United States in 1926, and settled in New York City in 1927.
Two Men Standing (1938, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City), a dark picture of male figures standing in undefined surroundings, is typical of de Kooning's early work. The figures (some of which are self-portraits)
pose passively and display no connection to each other or to any common activity. Some areas of the painting reveal a tightly controlled technique, while other areas seem unfinished. This inconsistency became typical of de Kooning's work.
In Attic (1949, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
City) de Kooning experimented with cubism, particularly the cubist tendency to fragment forms into series of intersecting geometric planes. As in many of his paintings de Kooning left partial references to the human form visible on the canvas: an eye here, a row of teeth there. Since his forms are
more organic than geometric, this fragmentation seems to underscore a feeling of violence that is associated with much of de Kooning's work.
In the early 1950s de Kooning used slashing strokes of color to create a series of paintings of women. In many of these works, an imposing framework of angular
shapes conceals a violently distorted figure with exaggerated female features (breasts and lips). De Kooning's apparent abandonment of abstraction disappointed some of his admirers, because many theorists of modern art believed that art should progress in a straight line—moving from figuration to
abstraction, not the other way around. His paintings of women also shocked many feminists, who interpreted his colliding brushstrokes as a gesture of violence toward the female body. But de Kooning related his paintings of women to prehistoric fertility figures such as the so-called Venus figurine
from the area of Willendorf, Austria (30,000?-25,000? BC, Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria) or to figures in popular culture, as in his Marilyn Monroe (1954, collection of Mr. and Mrs. Roy R. Neuberger, New York City).
De Kooning's art always hovers between figuration and abstraction. Easter
Monday (1956, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City) combines abstract brushstrokes with recognizable lettering and photographs of human figures. To keep the surface of his paintings from drying too quickly while he worked, de Kooning sometimes covered them temporarily with newspaper. The
lettering and photographs would often transfer themselves from the newspaper onto the surface of the painting. This effect may have been accidental at first, but de Kooning soon learned to anticipate and control it. His combination of freely applied brushstrokes and images from popular culture influenced
American painter Robert Rauschenberg and others.
In the early 1960s de Kooning's compositions opened up, with long, wide swaths of color that evoked landscape forms. By the 1970s his canvases had become more densely congested with brushstrokes. De Kooning produced simpler and more lyrical works
in the 1980s, which featured loops and twisting lines of orange, blue, or red on bare white surfaces.
Claude Cernuschi, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Boston College; Author of Jackson Pollock: Meaning and Significance, Not an Illustration, But the Equivalent: A
Cognitive Approach to Abstract Expressionism, and other books.
"de Kooning, Willem," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2001
http://encarta.msn.com © 1997-2001 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.
Cleveland : The Stamp of Impulse. Abstract Expressionist Prints
Los Angeles : Willem De Kooning
Washington : A Century of Drawing - Works on Paper from Degas to LeWitt