Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning (/də ˈkuːnɪŋ/;[2] Dutch: [ˈʋɪləm də ˈkoːnɪŋ]; April 24, 1904 – March 19, 1997) was a Dutch American abstract expressionist artist. He was born in Rotterdam and moved to the United States in 1926, becoming an American citizen in 1962.[3] In 1943, he married painter Elaine Fried.

In the years after World War II, de Kooning 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 New York School. Other painters in this group included Jackson Pollock, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann, Nell Blaine, Adolph Gottlieb, Anne Ryan, Robert Motherwell, Philip Guston, Clyfford Still, and Richard Pousette-Dart.

Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning in his studio
De Kooning in his studio in 1961
BornApril 24, 1904
DiedMarch 19, 1997 (aged 92)
NationalityDutch, American
Known forAbstract expressionism
Notable work
Woman I, Easter Monday, Attic, Excavation
AwardsPresidential Medal of Freedom (1964)
National Medal of Arts (1986)
Praemium Imperiale (1989)


Willem de Kooning (1968)
Willem de Kooning (1968)

Willem de Kooning was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, on April 24, 1904. His parents, Leendert de Kooning and Cornelia Nobel, were divorced in 1907, and de Kooning lived first with his father and then with his mother. He left school in 1916 and became an apprentice in a firm of commercial artists. Until 1924 he attended evening classes at the Academie van Beeldende Kunsten en Technische Wetenschappen (the academy of fine arts and applied sciences of Rotterdam), now the Willem de Kooning Academie.[3]

In 1926 de Kooning travelled to the United States as a stowaway on the Shelley, a British freighter bound for Argentina, and on August 15 landed at Newport News, Virginia. He stayed at the Dutch Seamen's Home in Hoboken, New Jersey, and found work as a house-painter. In 1927 he moved to Manhattan, where he had a studio on West Forty-fourth Street. He supported himself with jobs in carpentry, house-painting and commercial art.[3]

De Kooning began painting in his free time and in 1928 he joined the art colony at Woodstock, New York. He also began to meet some of the modernist artists active in Manhattan. Among them were the American Stuart Davis, the Armenian Arshile Gorky and the Russian John Graham, whom de Kooning collectively called the "Three Musketeers".[4]:98 Gorky, whom de Kooning first met at the home of Misha Reznikoff, became a close friend and, for at least ten years, an important influence.[4]:100 Balcomb Greene said that "de Kooning virtually worshipped Gorky"; according to Aristodimos Kaldis, "Gorky was de Kooning's master".[4]:184 De Kooning's drawing Self-portrait with Imaginary Brother, from about 1938, may show him with Gorky; the pose of the figures is that of a photograph of Gorky with Peter Busa in about 1936.[4]:184

De Kooning joined the Artists Union in 1934, and in 1935 was employed in the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, for which he designed a number of murals including some for the Williamsburg Federal Housing Project in Brooklyn. None of them were executed,[1] but a sketch for one was included in New Horizons in American Art at the Museum of Modern Art, his first group show. Starting in 1937, when De Kooning had to leave the Federal Art Project because he did not have American citizenship, he began to work full-time as an artist, earning income from commissions and by giving lessons.[3] That year de Kooning was assigned to a portion of the mural Medicine for the Hall of Pharmacy at the 1939 World's Fair in New York, which drew the attention of critics, the images themselves so completely new and distinct from the era of American realism.

De Kooning met his wife, Elaine Fried, at the American Artists School in New York. She was 14 years his junior. Thus was to begin a lifelong partnership affected by alcoholism, lack of money, love affairs, quarrels and separations. They were married on December 9, 1943. De Kooning worked on his first series of portrait paintings: standing or sedentary men like Two Men Standing, Man, and Seated Figure (Classic Male), even combining with self-portraits as with Portrait with Imaginary Brother (1938–39). At this time, de Kooning's work borrowed strongly from Gorky's surrealist imagery and was influenced by Picasso. This changed only when de Kooning met the younger painter Franz Kline, who was also working with the figurative style of American realism and had been drawn to monochrome. Kline, who died young, was one of de Kooning's closest artist friends. Kline's influence is evident in de Kooning's calligraphic black images of this period.

In the late 1950s, de Kooning's work shifted away from the figurative work of the women (though he would return to that subject matter on occasion) and began to display an interest in more abstract, less representational imagery. He became a US citizen on 13 March 1962, and in the following year moved from Broadway to a small house in East Hampton, a house which Elaine's brother Peter Fried had sold to him two years before. He built a studio near by, and lived in the house to the end of his life.[3][5]

It was revealed that, toward the end of his life, de Kooning had begun to lose his memory in the late 1980s and had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for some time.[5] This revelation has initiated considerable debate among scholars and critics about how responsible de Kooning was for the creation of his late work.[6]

Succumbing to the progression of his disease, de Kooning painted his final works in 1991. He died in 1997 at the age of 93 and was cremated.

Marriage to Elaine de Kooning

Elaine had admired Willem's artwork before meeting him; in 1938 her teacher introduced her to Willem de Kooning at a Manhattan cafeteria when she was 20 and he 34. After meeting, he began to instruct her in drawing and painting. They painted in Willem's loft at 143 West 21st Street, and he was known for his harsh criticism of her work, "sternly requiring that she draw and redraw a figure or still life and insisting on fine, accurate, clear linear definition supported by precisely modulated shading."[7] He even destroyed many of her drawings, but this "impelled Elaine to strive for both precision and grace in her work".[7] When they married in 1943, she moved into his loft and they continued sharing studio spaces.[7]

Elaine and Willem de Kooning had what was later called an open marriage; they both were casual about sex and about each other's affairs. Elaine had affairs with men who helped further Willem's career, such as Harold Rosenberg, who was a renowned art critic, Thomas B. Hess, who was a writer about art and managing editor for Artnews, and Charles Egan, owner of the Charles Egan Gallery. Willem had a daughter, Lisa de Kooning, in 1956, as a result of his affair with Joan Ward.[7]

Elaine and Willem both struggled with alcoholism, which eventually led to their separation in 1957.[7] While separated, Elaine remained in New York, struggling with poverty, and Willem moved to Long Island and dealt with depression. Despite bouts with alcoholism, they both continued painting. Although separated for nearly twenty years, they never divorced, and ultimately reunited in 1976.[7]


Early work

De Kooning's paintings of the 1930s and early 1940s are abstract still-lifes characterised by geometric or biomorphic shapes and strong colours. They show the influence of his friends Davis, Gorky and Graham, but also of Arp, Joan Miró, Mondrian and Pablo Picasso.[1] In the same years de Kooning also painted a series of solitary male figures, either standing or seated, against undefined backgrounds; many of these are unfinished.[1][3]

Black and white abstracts

By 1946, de Kooning had begun a series of black and white paintings, which he would continue into 1949. During this period he had his first one-man show at the Charles Egan Gallery in 1948 consisting largely of black and white works, although a few pieces have passages of bright color. De Kooning's black paintings are important to the history of abstract expressionism owing to their densely impacted forms, their mixed media, and their technique.[8]:25

Woman III, 1953, private collection

The Woman series

De Kooning's well-known Woman series, begun in 1950 and culminating in Woman VI, owes much to Picasso, not least in the aggressive, penetrative breaking apart of the figure, and the spaces around it. Picasso's late works show signs that he, in turn, saw images of works by Pollock and de Kooning.[9]:17

De Kooning led the 1950s art world into a new movement known as American abstract expressionism. "From 1940 to the present, Woman has manifested herself in de Kooning's paintings and drawings as at once the focus of desire, frustration, inner conflict, pleasure, … and as posing problems of conception and handling as demanding as those of an engineer."[10] The female figure is an important symbol for de Kooning's art career and his own life. The Woman painting is considered as a significant work of art for the museum through its historical context about the post-World War II history and American feminist movement. Additionally, the medium (oil, enamel, and charcoal on canvas) of this painting makes it different from others of de Kooning's time.

De Kooning sculpture
De Kooning as sculptor: Seated Woman on a Bench, bronze of 1972 (cast 1976), in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Notable works

The painter is noted for his paintings: Woman III (1953), Woman VI (1953), Interchange (1955), and Police Gazette (1955). Some notable sculptures are Clamdigger (1972/1976) and Seated Woman on a Bench (1972/1976).

Market reception

Some of de Kooning's paintings have been sold in the 21st century for near record prices. In November 2006, David Geffen sold his oil painting Woman III to Steven A. Cohen for $137.5 million, just below the record at the time of $140 million, which involved the same people in the same month for Jackson Pollock's No. 5, 1948.[11] A month earlier Cohen had already paid Geffen $63.5 million for Police Gazette by de Kooning.[12] In September 2015 David Geffen sold de Kooning's oil painting Interchange for $300 million to hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin.[13] As of 2017, this de Kooning painting was displaced by the da Vinci Salvator Mundi as receiving the highest price paid for a painting, which in 2016 was almost matched by the sale of Paul Gauguin's When Will You Marry? in February 2015 for close to $300 million. In November 2016, Untitled XXV sold for $66.3 million at Christie's in New York. This was a record price for a Kooning piece sold at auction.[14]

The painting by Leonardo which displaced the de Kooning oil work as the most expensive painting sold was Salvator Mundi, depicting Jesus Christ holding an orb, sold for a world record $450.3 million at a Christie's auction in New York on 15 November 2017.[15] The highest price previously paid for a work of art at auction was for Pablo Picasso's Les Femmes d'Alger, which sold for $179.4 million in May 2015 at Christie's New York.[16]

Solo exhibitions

The artist was featured in a number of solo exhibitions from 1948 to 1966, many in New York but also nationally and internationally. Specifically, he had fourteen separate exhibitions and even had two exhibitions per annum in the years 1953, 1964, and 1965. He was featured at the Egan Gallery, the Sidney Janis Gallery, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Arts Club of Chicago, the Martha Jackson Gallery, the Workshop Center, the Paul Kantor Gallery, the Hames Goodman Gallery, the Allan Stone Gallery, and the Smith College Museum of Art. Most of the exhibitions lasted for 3 weeks to one month.[8]:126

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Christoph Grunenberg, et al. (2011). De Kooning: (1) Willem de Kooning. Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Accessed February 2015. (subscription required)
  2. ^ "de Kooning". The Collins English Dictionary, online edition. London: HarperCollins Publishers.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Tracy Schpero Fitzpatrick (2001). de Kooning, Willem. American National Biography Online, January 2001 update. Accessed February 2015. (subscription required)
  4. ^ a b c d Matthew Spender (1999). From a High Place: a Life of Arshile Gorky. New York: Knopf. ISBN 9780375403781.
  5. ^ a b "Willem de Kooning Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works". The Art Story. Retrieved April 2, 2017.
  6. ^ Swinnen, Aafje, and Mark Schweda. 2015. Popularizing Dementia: Public Expressions and Representations of Forgetfulness. Bielefeld: Transcript. p. 150. ISBN 9783837627107.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Hall, Lee. Elaine and Bill: Portrait of a Marriage.
  8. ^ a b Harry F. Gaugh (1983). Willem de Kooning. New York: Abbeville Press. ISBN 9780896593329.
  9. ^ Terry Smith (2011). Contemporary art: world currents. Upper Saddle River, [NJ]: Prentice Hall. ISBN 9780205034406.
  10. ^ Willem de Kooning. Text by Harold Rosenberg. 29
  11. ^ Carol Vogel, Landmark De Kooning Crowns Collection, The New York Times, November 18, 2006
  12. ^ Carol Vogel, Works by Johns and de Kooning Sell for $143.5 Million, The New York Times, October 12, 2006
  13. ^ "Billionaire drops $500M for 2 masterpieces," Feb. 19, 2016, Bloomberg News, as republished by Fox News, at [1].
  14. ^ Duray, Dan (November 16, 2016). "De Kooning painting sells for record $66m at Christie's New York". The Art Newspaper. Archived from the original on December 1, 2016. Retrieved November 30, 2016.
  15. ^ Crow, Kelly (November 16, 2017). "Leonardo da Vinci Painting 'Salvator Mundi' Sells for $450.3 Million". Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved November 16, 2017.
  16. ^ Leonardo da Vinci painting 'Salvator Mundi' sold for record $450.3 million, Fox News, 16 November 2017

Further reading

External links

Clamdigger (de Kooning)

Clamdigger is a bronze sculpture by Willem de Kooning. It may have been inspired by "the men who dug for clams along the beaches" near his home in East Hampton, New York. It has been described as one of his "extraordinarily tactile figurative sculptures" that "seemed pulled from the primordial ooze," and "as part man, part creature of the mud and the shallows."The sculpture was modeled in clay in 1972, and cast in bronze in 1976. It was his "first large-scale bronze work."As of 2014, Clamdigger is on display in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.De Kooning, known for his abstract expressionist paintings, took up sculpture later in his career, after a 1969 visit with a friend in Italy "who had a small foundry."

Daan van Golden

Daniël (Daan) van Golden (4 February 1936 – 10 January 2017) was a Dutch artist, who has been active as painter, photographer, collagist, installation artist, wall painter and graphic artist. He is known for his meticulous paintings of motives and details of everyday life and every day images.

Dora Dolz

Dora Dolz (Barcelona, 5 November 1941 - Rotterdam, 1 March 2008) was a Spanish-Dutch artist, best known for her ceramic outdoors in the form of chairs and sofas.

Elaine de Kooning

Elaine Marie Catherine de Kooning (Dutch: [də ˈkoːnɪŋ], née Fried; March 12, 1918 – February 1, 1989) was an Abstract Expressionist and Figurative Expressionist painter in the post-World War II era. She wrote extensively on the art of the period and was an editorial associate for Art News magazine. On December 9, 1943, she married painter Willem de Kooning.

Eylem Aladogan

Eylem Aladogan (born 24 October 1975) is a Dutch installation artist and sculptor.

Herman Mees

Hermanus Ellen (Herman) Mees (September 19, 1880 in Veendam – November 28, 1964 in Zuidlaren) was a Dutch artist, active as painter, watercolorist, draftsman, pastelist, lithographer, and academy lecturer. He was specialized in portrait painting.

Interchange (de Kooning)

Interchange, also known as Interchanged, is an oil on canvas painting by the Dutch-American abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning (1904–1997). It measures 200.7 by 175.3 centimetres (79.0 by 69.0 in) and was completed in 1955. It was one of de Kooning's first abstract landscapes, and marked a change in his style under the influence of fellow artist Franz Kline. In September 2015, it was sold by the David Geffen Foundation to Kenneth C. Griffin for $300 million ($317.1 million today), a new mark for highest ever price for a painting, not surpassed until November 2017 by Leonardo Da Vinci's Salvator Mundi.

It has been on loan at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Jacqueline Hassink

Jacqueline Hassink (15 July 1966 – 22 November 2018) was a New York City based visual artist.

Mathieu Ficheroux

Matheus Josephus Lambertus (Mathieu) Ficheroux (April 22, 1926 - October 11, 2003) was a Dutch artist, who worked as sculptor, glass painter, painter, draftsman, wall painter and installation artist. He is considered among the foremost Dutch artist of the second part of the 20th century.Ficheroux is especially known for his 1960s "pink and brown paintings of objects of plastic and light reliefs (sleeping pieces), in which eroticism and alienation were important themes."

Police Gazette (painting)

Police Gazette is a 1955 abstract painting by Willem de Kooning, which is currently in private hands.

Q.S. Serafijn

Q.S. Serafijn (born February 19, 1960) is a Dutch conceptual artist and author, who is working as sculptor, photographer, and installation artist.

Seated Woman on a Bench

Seated Woman on a Bench is a bronze sculpture by Willem de Kooning.Modeled in 1972, it was cast in 1976. It is at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Sue van Geijn

Sue van Geijn is a Rotterdam, the Netherlands based contemporary artist (14 September 1988 -) born in Amsterdam, and Willem de Kooning Academy graduate.

Teun Jacob

Teunis (Teun) Jacob (11 June 1927 - 12 October 2009) was a Dutch wall painter and sculptor, who lived and worked in Rotterdam since the early 1950s. He made both figure and nonrepresentational art.Born in Rheden, studied fine art at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam in the department of drawing and painting. As sculptor he was autodidact. Since the 1950s he worked as independent artist in Rotterdam. In 1957 Jacob and Ru van Rossem (1924-2007) had a major exhibition of his work in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.In 1971 he was exhibition architect of the Brussels Pavilion and Downhill Palace in the Park of Culture and Rest Julius Fucik in Prague. Later in the 1970s, in cooperation with Dutch sculptor Kees Verschuren, Jacob created a massive land art project at the first Maasvlakte, entitled Steen in water (Rock in Water). This industrial area in the Port of Rotterdam was built on the land, reclaiming from the North Sea in the 1960s. In a period of over five years, adjacent to a power plant, the artists developed an area into the largest work of art in the Netherlands.Over the year he was also lecturer at the Willem de Kooning Academy.

Willem de Kooning Academy

The Willem de Kooning Academy is a Dutch academy of media, art, design, leisure and education based in Rotterdam. It was named after one of its most famous alumni, Dutch fine artist Willem de Kooning.

Willem van Veldhuizen

Willem van Veldhuizen (1954) is a Dutch painter, known for his photorealism and hyperrealism paintings of his museum interiors.

Woman III

Woman III is a painting by abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning. Woman III is one of a series of six paintings by de Kooning done between 1951 and 1953 in which the central theme was a woman. It measures 68 by 48 1⁄2 inches (1.73 by 1.23 m) and was completed in 1953.

From late 1970s to 1994 this painting was part of Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art collection, but after the revolution in 1979, this painting could not be shown because of strict rules set by the government about the visual arts and what they depict. Finally, in 1994 it was quietly traded by Thomas Ammann Fine Art to David Geffen for the remainder of the 16th century Persian manuscript, the Tahmasbi Shahnameh.In November 2006, the painting was sold by Geffen to billionaire Steven A. Cohen for $137.5 million, making it the fourth most expensive painting ever sold.

Woman VI

In 1953, Woman, a series of abstract works of art painted by Willem de Kooning, shocked the public who visited de Kooning’s third one-man show at the Sidney Janis Gallery in Manhattan. The last painting of this series, Woman VI, is displayed at the Carnegie Museum of Art as part of the Postwar Abstraction collection since the 1955 Carnegie International Exhibition. Willem de Kooning is a pioneer of abstract expressionism in America. This painting is a good example of contemporary art’s transition from European traditional painting to abstract expressionism; Woman is considered de Kooning’s most famous series because it is significant to postwar history and social events, such as the American Feminist Movement in 1960s; de Kooning has a ventured impact on the issue of the representation of woman during 1950s through the abstract form; and, above all, Woman VI is an irreplaceable work of art for the Postwar Abstraction collection not only for its abstract form and brushwork techniques but because it still has the ability to create multiple interpretations with each viewing.

Woody van Amen

Wilhelmus Josephus (Woody) van Amen (Eindhoven August 26, 1936) is a Dutch sculptor, painter and collage artist.

Willem de Kooning

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