Willem de Kooning, one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century, died on March 19, 1997 in East Hampton, New York, where he had lived since 1963. De Kooning described art and the process of art with the following quote: "Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure. I always seem to be wrapped up in the melodrama of vulgarity". He had lived with Alzheimer's Disease during most of the past ten years of his life but finally reached the spirit of peace. At the time of his death he was 93.
De Kooning was born in Rotterdam, The Netherlands on April 24, 1904. His parents were Leendert De Kooning and Cornelia Nobel. His parents divorced in 1909 when Willem was only five years old, and his mother and subsequent stepfather raised him.
After finishing elementary school, which at that time ended at grade six, De Kooning , at the age of twelve was apprenticed to a commercial decorating firm. Yes, there were high schools then but only for those who could afford them, and Willem's parents apparently could not afford to send him onto high school. Willem apparently had considerable artistic skills at his young age and was accepted, at age 12, to attend evening classes at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques. He studied at the Academy for eight years, until his twentieth birthday.
After completing his four year apprenticeship, Willem at age 16 went to work for the artistic director of a large department store in his home city Rotterdam. After eight years at the Academy of Fine Arts, at age 20, he went to Belgium to broaden his study of art. Two years later he contemplated a move to the United States, but lack of money stood in his way. We can surmise that whatever he had earned during the past 10 years probably had been used up for tuition for his artistic studies at the Academy and in Belgium. Willem, therefore, in 1926 became a stowaway on a freighter on its way to New York City. He was apparently successful and ended up in Hoboken, New Jersey, which at that time had a large concentration of Dutch immigrants and Dutch-Americans. To support himself he was able to find work as a house painter, a trade which at least kept him close to paint and to colors. It is of interest to note that Willem, although he almost immediately became involved with artistic work, did support himself with house painting for about the next ten years until 1935.
While supporting himself as a house painter De Kooning remained active in art. From 1928 until 1930 he painted still life and color compositions based on the School of Paris and on Mexican influences. In 1930, he began to explore and paint abstract art. In 1933 he met art critic John Graham and Arshile Gorky. The latter became one of De Kooning's best friends until 1948 when Gorky committed suicide, a severe blow to De Kooning.
Graham and Gorki introduced De Kooning to Cubism and to Picasso's and Miro's work. In 1935 De Kooning was able to give up his house painting when he received a paid appointment with the Mural Painting Division of the Federal Art Project. Unfortunately two years later, in 1932, when they discovered that De Kooning was an alien he was kicked out of the Federal Art Project. In 1938 Willem met Elaine Freed, also an artist, who he married in 1943. During that period, from 1938 to 1945, he painted sad and staring male figures as well as abstract work.
De Kooning's work took another turn in 1946. At that time he still was too poor to buy artistic pigment and decided to use black and white commercial enamels to paint large abstractions. This new approach to creating art proved to be a positive turn in his artistic career. In 1948 he had his first one-man show based on the black and white enamel abstractions at the prestigious Charles Egan Art Gallery in New York City. The visibility in the art world provided through the one-man show also resulted in his first teaching appointment at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. During the 1950-1951 period he also taught at the more prestigious Yale School of Art.
During the 1940's De Kooning also founded and became a strong force in the School of Abstract Expressionists. Others in this group included Jackson Pollock, Mark Roth and Clyfford Still.
In 1950 De Kooning began to focus on the female figure in a rather unusual way. His approach involved "savagely applying pigments to the canvas and the use of colors that seem to have been vomited on the canvas to reveal a woman all too congruent with some of modern man's most widely held sexual fears. The toothy snarls, over ripe pendulous breasts, vacuous eyes, and blasted extremities imagined the darkest Freudian insights". His works, shown at the Janis Gallery in1953, caused a sensation largely because his paintings were figurative as opposed to totally abstract, but also because of the blatant techniques and imagery used by De Kooning. His new approach influenced a generation of younger artists including Joan Mitchell, James Brooks, Philip Guston and Robert Rauschenberg.
In 1963 De Kooning moved his studios permanently to East Hampton on Long Island. Being away from the hustle and bustle of the city appears to have affected his paintings from this time on although only to a limited extent. He continued to paint in a flamboyant way. His paintings employed brushwork that demonstrates his commitment to art as a process.
During the 1970's and early 1980's De Kooning continued his painting and sculpture. Unfortunately the quality of his work began to decline during the latter part of his career.
During the 1980's De Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. On March 19, 1997 one of the greatest artists of his time, and of the twentieth century, died in East Hampton, New York. He left behind an enormous oeuvre of his work. The largest public collection of his work can be viewed at the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington, DC.
The quality of De Kooning's work can probably best be measured by some of the auction prices of his work while he was still alive. In 1987, at one of Sotheby's auctions, one of De Kooning's paintings, "Pink Lady", painted in 1944 sold for $3.6 million. Two years later another one of his paintings, "Interchange", painted in 1955 sold for $20.6 million. Although many artists do not like to judge art or an artist by the prices his or her art work commands, it certainly is a measure of how society as a whole measures the value of the work produced.
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