Willem De Kooning had been widely acknowledged as one of thegreatest painters of this century known for his daringoriginality. Several exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad havecelebrated the artistic achievements of this eminent artist’s 60-year career. My essay covers part of his early life with realfocus on his late paintings.
His last works, painted in the1980s, as he was in deteriorating health have come undercriticism by some critics. Willem de Kooning was born on April24, 1904 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. His father was a beerdistributor and his mother ran a bar. At the age of twelve hebecame an apprentice at a commercial design and decorating firm.
He studied for eight years at Rotterdam’s leading art school. In1926, de Kooning secured a passage on a streamer to the UnitedStates, illegally entering and settling in New Jersey. He quicklymoved to Manhattan, painted signs and worked as a carpenter inNew York City. Then in 1935, he landed a job with the WorksProgress Administration, a government agency that put artists towork during the Great Depression. By the next decade, he hadattained a place in the downtown art scene among his fellowartists.By the late 1940s, de Kooning along with Arshile Gorky,Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, began to berecognized as a major painter in a movement called “AbstractExpressionism”. This new school of thought shifted the center oftwentieth century art form Paris to New York.
Willem de Kooningwas recognized as the only painter who had one foot in Europe andone in America. He combined classical European training inHolland with a love for popular American culture. Therestlessness and energy of American life was a source of greatinspiration and passion for him. Gary Garrells, the chief curatorat the San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art said, ” He had thewildness of Pollock but mixed with the impeccable craftsmanshipof the European tradition.
He was not interested in style, he wasinterested in the process of looking and knowing and gettingunder the skin.” Willem de Kooning, 93, was the last survivor ofhis famous peers. One would not have predicted for him a greatold age. Among the leading figures of hard-living generation hebelonged by temperament and talent to a romantic tradition ofartists who burned the physical and psychic fuel of themselveswith devastating speed and completeness. Few of de Kooning’sclosest friends and colleagues survived the harshness of the1940s and 1950s. In 1948, Arshile Gorky, De Kooning’s mentor forhis studio on the eastern end of Long Island, committed suicideat 48.In 1956, Jackson Pollock at the age of 44, killed himself ina drunken roadside collision.
In 1962, Franz Kline gave himselfaway to a heart attack at 52. Three years later David Smith diedin a car crash at 59 and in 1970 Mark Rothko, slit his wristswhile battling ever-deepening alcoholic depression. Willem deKooning was the principal member of the Abstract Expressionism.Abstract Expressionism gave birth as a reaction to years ofstruggle against conservative taste, improvised circumstances andreinforced by confused feelings created after World War II. DeKooning was celebrated for his ferocious Women painting in 1950s.In 1956, he took a break form Women theme, and started to paintsmall, packed shapes with a feel for city. Woman merged into anurban landscape filled with small, interchangeable parts of themetropolitan environment.
In 1963, he began a new series ofWomen. He painted women on tall door panels. De Kooning’s art wasof mutually exclusive contradictions without the resolution ofsynthesis, of harmony and balance. By the end of 1970s, he hadreached a point of near total spiritual exhaustion- partly due toheavy drinking and partly for a tendency to forgetfulness and agradual detachment from the world around him.Much was said of Kooning about his last drawings, ” as adoodling of a helpless old man,” but the reality was quitedifferent. De Kooning succumbed to Alzheimer disease in late1970s. According to Peter Schjedahl, in his essay, De Kooninglater life was compared to King Lear in Shakespeare’s play.
It issaid of him , ” The wonder is, he hath endures so long./ He butusurped his life.” Peter continued on with these lyrics of KingLear to praise De Kooning’s later life. Come, let’s away toprison. We two alone will sing like birds i’the cage. When thoudost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down And ask of theeforgiveness. So we’ll live, And pray, and sing, and tell oldtales, and laugh At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues Talkof court news; and we’ll talk with them too, Who loses and whowins; 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 walledprison, packs and sects of great ones That ebb and flow by themoon.
“Willem De Kooning: The Late Paintings, The 1980s” , anexhibit in Modern Museum of San Fransisco, was the center of acritical controversy. He was labeled to be lost to Alzheimer’sdisease and thought to be slipped from reality. According to acritic in New York Daily, ” the paintings are like seeing a comicactor cast unexpectedly in a serious role.
” She further statedthat there was a evidence of loss of energy in those recentpaintings. To be specific she picked Untitled XIII (1986). Shecriticized by saying, ” the quality of line dissolves fromimprovisational to conventional. Rather than making their ownpaths, lines become mere stripes, tracing the outlines of forms,already laid down on the canvas.” The critic accused the exhibitcurator Gary Garrells of taking an unusual step of collecting apanel of experts to determine when De Kooning’s work began tolose coherence. The panel included painter Joseph Johns andcurator Robert Storr of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Afterclose examination of his paintings the expert group determinedthat De Kooning’s work faltered after 1988. Gary Garrellsdeclared the paintings made before 1988 as the most beautiful andsensual abstracts works of modern art. There was not merecriticism by critics, who even hired some neurologists to back uptheir claim for faulty paintings.A lot was written to acknowledge and criticize theoriginator of the Abstract Expressionist School. The exhibitionat San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art drew paintings from privateand public collections. Most of the observers and curators calledit the most fluid, sensual and celebratory works created in thetwentieth century full with “luminous” strokes of yellow, red,orange and blue. The paintings were called as a beautifulinterlude of the sun and sky, ocean and ballet.
Another impressedcritic expressed his opinion about the exhibition by declaringthat De Kooning has refused to categorize his paintingsthroughout his career. He clearly shifted between figurative andabstract paintings and sometimes fused the two. He would reinventhis manner of working style, which eluded his critics. Thisrenewed his vigor, which he sustained over decades by continualinvention and new vision.
At the age of 75, De Kooning againshifted by another way of working. His initial acclaimed workswith heavy layering of surfaces, dense and excitable strokes andrich diverse colors gave way to open and spare forms. Theserecent paintings had scraped and carefully constructed surfaces.The primary colors were concentrated with complements of green,orange and violet with subtly toned creamy backgrounds. Thesepaintings reminded of his 1930s and1940s work with an assurance eand freedom only attained by a master painter.
Robert Storr, curator from New York’s Museum of Modern Artwas one of the coordinator of his last exhibition. He wrote inWinter/Spring 1997 issue of MOMA Magazine that the story of DeKooning in the 1980s is that of a nearly miraculous recovery offocus and ambition. After several years, De Kooning was newlysober and had astounding determination to resolve outstandingissues of his works. Knowing that failure would have confirmedthe opinion of those who were expecting his decline, he said,”Failure ought to take your whole life, active life.” His finalcreative burst had a sheer number of canvases resembling Women1,his earlier acclaimed effort. Storr narrates in his essay, thatfilms of the artist at work show that he would labor over certainpassages, rephrase a curve, cancel out large, complex areas thuscreating a clearly legible distribution of bounded shapes,flowing lines and open spaces.
He was confident of his freedom topaint with all creative restraint. These films produced anuncanny experience reading the tracks of brush across the canvas.These moves would envy anyone then painting. Moving away fromAbstract Expressionism, he dwelled on various techniques of neo-expressionism. By virtue of its freshness, De Kooning’s workswill be placed in the foreground of any accurate picture of thisperiod.I think De Kooning life’s art achievement speak forthemselves by its demand and recognition in the art world.
As thecontroversy surrounding his late works Kooning was an imaginativewhich was not easy to be understood by his few contemporaries. Hecould be likened to Beethoven who created his masterpiece NinthSymphony when he could hear single word of formed music. A geniusin his own department De Kooning, in spite of his progressivedisease, created something original and fresh away form hisearlier works.