Willem de

United States • 1904−1997
Willem de Kooning (niderl. Willem de Kooning; April 24, 1904, Rotterdam, the Netherlands - March 19, 1997, East Hampton, New York, USA) American artist of Dutch origin, is considered one of the founders of abstract expressionism. At the age of 22, he illegally migrated to the USA, lived almost all his life in New York. Achieved recognition during his lifetime, has repeatedly organized solo exhibitions in museums and galleries in the United States. In the 21st century, de Kooning’s paintings were sold for a record amount.

Features of the artist Willem de Kooning: He worked in a wide variety of techniques, ranging from engravings and ending with projects of murals, constantly experimenting with materials. However, de Kooning's works, written in the style of abstract expressionism, as well as the series “Women” are considered the greatest contribution to American painting.

Famous paintings by Willem de Kooning: "Woman I", "Woman III", "Exchange", "Police newspaper", "Door to the river".

The life position of Willem de Kooning was simple and complex at the same time: "You must change to remain the same". His whole life seems to have been subject to this paradoxical rule. Unlike other artists, in the work of de Kooning there are no works that could be called his "calling card". He considered the division of painting into styles a deception and did not officially belong to any artistic movement. Following his own inspiration, the artist in fact constantly changed, experimented with plots, techniques and materials, and at the same time managed to remain the same, holding on to the narrow framework of "classical" painting.

Artist vs painting

Willem Kuning (he will add the prefix "de" to his name much later) received his first job at the age of 12. As the son of divorced parents, Willem seemed to have an early sense of need for independence and found an opportunity to secure a modest but steady income for himself. Even then, he decided to link his life with the "visual arts" and hired as an assistant in the company engaged in interior design.

Approximately at the same time, the future artist enters the evening courses at the Rotterdam Academy of Arts and Crafts (in 1998, the school was renamed in honor of Willem de Kooning). Learning caused Willem mixed feelings. On the one hand, there was a certain reliance on utility, inherent in the newly formed group “De Stijl”. Students were taught not only drawing and the basics of painting, but also design and typography. But at the same time, while patterns and stereotypes were breaking down in the rest of Europe, abstractionism, cubism, and later surrealism thundered, teachers of the Rotterdam Academy admired the artists of the Barbizon school. Later de Kuning recalled that even then painting in a similar form seemed to him to the horror archaic: “There was nothing in common with the desire to become a painter to be a contemporary artist.

In 1920, de Kooning is hired as an assistant to the art decorator and designer Bernard Romain. At this time, he was already beginning to write in his free hours, but unfortunately there were very few early paintings by the artist ("Portrait of Rene", "Still Life (Bowl, Jug and Mug)", "Flower Saleswomen"). Four years later, de Kooning interrupts his studies to travel to Belgium, where he attends classes at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, earning his living by advertising orders. After returning home, the artist nevertheless received a diploma from the Academy of Arts and Crafts. And then he faced the main question: where to go next? The answer was unexpected even for de Kooning himself - the New World.

Feminine beginning

In 1948, the first personal exhibition of Willem de Kooning was held at the Charles Egan Gallery in Manhattan. For an artist who, after moving to the States, was forced to work as a house painter, carpenter, and window dressing designer, and during the Great Depression it was almost illegal to live because of his position as an illegal, this event was a serious step. Shortly after the exhibition, De Kuning begins selling his paintings for impressive sums, and in 1951 he receives a prize from the Art Institute of Chicago for a large-scale abstract canvas. "Excavations". This picture, many art critics consider one of the most important works in American art of the twentieth century.

When looking at the paintings of de Kooning it seems that his imagination was in constant search, in constant motion. In the 30s and early 40s, in his works he most often refers to anthropomorphic forms (for example, he writes a series of single male figures (1, 2), then completely switches to abstract painting, creating a cycle of black and white works ("Dark Pond", "Picture"). And in the early 50s, he was suddenly stunned by the public and critics with his famous "Women".

To create first picturewhich marked the beginning of the most controversial and controversial series in the work of the artist, it took him about two years. All this time, de Kooning reworked an almost two-meter-long canvas, introducing new and new changes to the canvas and not being satisfied with the result. In the end, the artist simply tore the canvas from the wall and abandoned work on it for several months.

"Women" first saw the light in 1953 at an exhibition in the Gallery Sidney Janice and caused a real sensation. First, due to the fact that de Kooning returned to figurative painting, while his associates (at that time the artist was already considered to be abstract expressionists) were carefully removed from it. Moreover, in these works all the darkest sexual fears of humanity seemed to be embodied. The women of De Kooning, with their broken limbs, teeth of prey, grinning and empty eyes, frightened and fascinated at the same time.

Sex, painting and alcohol

Elaine Fried admired de Kooning’s paintings long before her personal acquaintance with the artist. Their first meeting in a Manhattan café was arranged by teacher Elaine. At that time, the girl was barely 18, de Kooning was 34. The artist decided to become a mentor for the young ambitious Fried, but the relationship quickly went beyond the scope of the workers. De Kooning was a strict and picky teacher: he repeatedly forced the girl to redo the drawings in order to get a more accurate silhouette or correct shadows, mercilessly destroying the unsuccessful works from his point of view. However, such an approach, according to Elaine, did not discourage her, but on the contrary encouraged her to work better, more precisely and more elegantly.

In 1943, Willem and Elaine were married, and Loft de Kooning became their common home and studio. The joint life of de Koonings was rather strange from the point of view of generally accepted norms. As they would say now, they lived in an “open marriage”, quite calmly referring to each other’s periodic intrigues and sex in principle. Elaine had romance with her husband's friends and acquaintances who, among other things, helped develop his career. De Kooning, too, did not experience a lack of female attention. One of his mistresses, Joan Ward, even bore him a daughter.

But the painting and the same views on marital fidelity were only two "whales" on which this strange marriage rested. The third was alcohol. In the end, it was the alcoholism that finally shattered the fragile structure that had managed to hold out for almost 15 years. In 1957, the couple separated. Elaine remained in New York with almost no means of livelihood, and de Kooning was depressed and after some time moved to Long Island. They lived apart for almost 20 years without being deemed necessary to divorce, and then suddenly reunited again and lived together until Elaine died of lung cancer in 1989.


When in July 1926 Willem de Kuning got off the ship in Virginia, he was disappointed. In his dreams, the artist painted the image of a completely different America, with skyscrapers, noisy streets and endless movement. Here he was waiting for him "Some kind of Holland, a flat country, similar to the one I just left". New York fully embodied the “American dream” de Kooning.

However, after long years of life in the heart of the Big Apple, the artist suddenly decided to move to the tranquil East Hampton on Long Island. De Kooning designed a studio for himself and actively participated in the construction. The building turned out to be filled with light and seemed to hover above the ground, with a roof resembling butterfly wings. When the artist in 1971 finally settled in the new house, his work began to change again. The light and landscapes in East Hampton reminded de Kooning of his native Holland, and he began to paint abstract landscapes ("North Atlantic Light", "Untitled V").

The colors in the works of the artist softened, the forms became more fluid. He again experiments with materials, adding water and safflower oil to paints, making them more fluid and gliding, and at the same time turning them into a very difficult substance for work.

In 1984, Willem de Kooning officially ended his career, and in 1991 wrote his last painting. Two years before, Elaine had died, and nine years later he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Memories began to elude the artist, along with images that he could transfer to the canvas. De Kooning worked less and less every year, while the demand for his early work only increased. In 1989, work "Exchange" was bought for $ 20.6 million, setting the record for the highest price for a work of art sold during the artist's lifetime. In 2015, the same canvas unofficially broke a new record, having gone to the billionaire Ken Griffin's fund for about 300 million (the same was the cost of the most expensive painting in the world at that time - "When the wedding?" Paul Gauguin).

At the time of the main creative triumph, de Kooning’s state had already deteriorated so much that the court officially declared him incapable. The only daughter of the artist Lisa cared for him until his death March 19, 1997.

Author: Evgenia Sidelnikova
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