Willem De Kooning

Willem De Kooning had been widely acknowledged as one of the
greatest painters of this century known for his daring
originality. Several exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad have
celebrated the artistic achievements of this eminent artist’s 60-
year career. My essay covers part of his early life with real
focus on his late paintings. His last works, painted in the
1980s, as he was in deteriorating health have come under
criticism by some critics. Willem de Kooning was born on April
24, 1904 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. His father was a beer
distributor and his mother ran a bar. At the age of twelve he
became an apprentice at a commercial design and decorating firm.

He studied for eight years at Rotterdam’s leading art school. In
1926, de Kooning secured a passage on a streamer to the United
States, illegally entering and settling in New Jersey. He quickly
moved to Manhattan, painted signs and worked as a carpenter in
New York City. Then in 1935, he landed a job with the Works
Progress Administration, a government agency that put artists to
work during the Great Depression. By the next decade, he had
attained a place in the downtown art scene among his fellow

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By the late 1940s, de Kooning along with Arshile Gorky,
Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, began to be
recognized as a major painter in a movement called “Abstract
Expressionism”. This new school of thought shifted the center of
twentieth century art form Paris to New York. Willem de Kooning
was recognized as the only painter who had one foot in Europe and
one in America. He combined classical European training in
Holland with a love for popular American culture. The
restlessness and energy of American life was a source of great
inspiration and passion for him. Gary Garrells, the chief curator
at the San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art said, ” He had the
wildness of Pollock but mixed with the impeccable craftsmanship
of the European tradition. He was not interested in style, he was
interested in the process of looking and knowing and getting
under the skin.” Willem de Kooning, 93, was the last survivor of
his famous peers. One would not have predicted for him a great
old age. Among the leading figures of hard-living generation he
belonged by temperament and talent to a romantic tradition of
artists who burned the physical and psychic fuel of themselves
with devastating speed and completeness. Few of de Kooning’s
closest friends and colleagues survived the harshness of the
1940s and 1950s. In 1948, Arshile Gorky, De Kooning’s mentor for
his studio on the eastern end of Long Island, committed suicide
at 48.

In 1956, Jackson Pollock at the age of 44, killed himself in
a drunken roadside collision. In 1962, Franz Kline gave himself
away to a heart attack at 52. Three years later David Smith died
in a car crash at 59 and in 1970 Mark Rothko, slit his wrists
while battling ever-deepening alcoholic depression. Willem de
Kooning was the principal member of the Abstract Expressionism.

Abstract Expressionism gave birth as a reaction to years of
struggle against conservative taste, improvised circumstances and
reinforced by confused feelings created after World War II. De
Kooning was celebrated for his ferocious Women painting in 1950s.

In 1956, he took a break form Women theme, and started to paint
small, packed shapes with a feel for city. Woman merged into an
urban landscape filled with small, interchangeable parts of the
metropolitan environment. In 1963, he began a new series of
Women. He painted women on tall door panels. De Kooning’s art was
of mutually exclusive contradictions without the resolution of
synthesis, of harmony and balance. By the end of 1970s, he had
reached a point of near total spiritual exhaustion- partly due to
heavy drinking and partly for a tendency to forgetfulness and a
gradual detachment from the world around him.

Much was said of Kooning about his last drawings, ” as a
doodling of a helpless old man,” but the reality was quite
different. De Kooning succumbed to Alzheimer disease in late
1970s. According to Peter Schjedahl, in his essay, De Kooning
later life was compared to King Lear in Shakespeare’s play. It is
said of him , ” The wonder is, he hath endures so long./ He but
usurped his life.” Peter continued on with these lyrics of King
Lear to praise De Kooning’s later life. Come, let’s away to
prison. We two alone will sing like birds i’the cage. When thou
dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down And ask of thee
forgiveness. So we’ll live, And pray, and sing, and tell old
tales, and laugh At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues Talk
of court news; and we’ll talk with them too, Who loses and who
wins; who’s in, who’s out; And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies; and we’ll wear out, In a walled
prison, packs and sects of great ones That ebb and flow by the
moon. “Willem De Kooning: The Late Paintings, The 1980s” , an
exhibit in Modern Museum of San Fransisco, was the center of a
critical controversy. He was labeled to be lost to Alzheimer’s
disease and thought to be slipped from reality. According to a
critic in New York Daily, ” the paintings are like seeing a comic
actor cast unexpectedly in a serious role.” She further stated
that there was a evidence of loss of energy in those recent
paintings. To be specific she picked Untitled XIII (1986). She
criticized by saying, ” the quality of line dissolves from
improvisational to conventional. Rather than making their own
paths, lines become mere stripes, tracing the outlines of forms,
already laid down on the canvas.” The critic accused the exhibit
curator Gary Garrells of taking an unusual step of collecting a
panel of experts to determine when De Kooning’s work began to
lose coherence. The panel included painter Joseph Johns and
curator Robert Storr of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. After
close examination of his paintings the expert group determined
that De Kooning’s work faltered after 1988. Gary Garrells
declared the paintings made before 1988 as the most beautiful and
sensual abstracts works of modern art. There was not mere
criticism by critics, who even hired some neurologists to back up
their claim for faulty paintings.

A lot was written to acknowledge and criticize the
originator of the Abstract Expressionist School. The exhibition
at San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art drew paintings from private
and public collections. Most of the observers and curators called
it the most fluid, sensual and celebratory works created in the
twentieth century full with “luminous” strokes of yellow, red,
orange and blue. The paintings were called as a beautiful
interlude of the sun and sky, ocean and ballet. Another impressed
critic expressed his opinion about the exhibition by declaring
that De Kooning has refused to categorize his paintings
throughout his career. He clearly shifted between figurative and
abstract paintings and sometimes fused the two. He would reinvent
his manner of working style, which eluded his critics. This
renewed his vigor, which he sustained over decades by continual
invention and new vision. At the age of 75, De Kooning again
shifted by another way of working. His initial acclaimed works
with heavy layering of surfaces, dense and excitable strokes and
rich diverse colors gave way to open and spare forms. These
recent paintings had scraped and carefully constructed surfaces.

The primary colors were concentrated with complements of green,
orange and violet with subtly toned creamy backgrounds. These
paintings reminded of his 1930s and1940s work with an assurance e
and freedom only attained by a master painter.

Robert Storr, curator from New York’s Museum of Modern Art
was one of the coordinator of his last exhibition. He wrote in
Winter/Spring 1997 issue of MOMA Magazine that the story of De
Kooning in the 1980s is that of a nearly miraculous recovery of
focus and ambition. After several years, De Kooning was newly
sober and had astounding determination to resolve outstanding
issues of his works. Knowing that failure would have confirmed
the opinion of those who were expecting his decline, he said,
“Failure ought to take your whole life, active life.” His final
creative burst had a sheer number of canvases resembling Women
1,his earlier acclaimed effort. Storr narrates in his essay, that
films of the artist at work show that he would labor over certain
passages, rephrase a curve, cancel out large, complex areas thus
creating a clearly legible distribution of bounded shapes,
flowing lines and open spaces. He was confident of his freedom to
paint with all creative restraint. These films produced an
uncanny experience reading the tracks of brush across the canvas.

These moves would envy anyone then painting. Moving away from
Abstract Expressionism, he dwelled on various techniques of neo-
expressionism. By virtue of its freshness, De Kooning’s works
will be placed in the foreground of any accurate picture of this

I think De Kooning life’s art achievement speak for
themselves by its demand and recognition in the art world. As the
controversy surrounding his late works Kooning was an imaginative
which was not easy to be understood by his few contemporaries. He
could be likened to Beethoven who created his masterpiece Ninth
Symphony when he could hear single word of formed music. A genius
in his own department De Kooning, in spite of his progressive
disease, created something original and fresh away form his
earlier works.


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