At the crossroads of figuration and abstraction stands the oeuvre of Willem de Kooning. Renowned as a founding member of Abstract Expressionism, his distinctive style is unique for his commitment to the figurative. His canvases reflect the unpredictable experience of life, filtered through his highly unique and unbridled painterly expression. Exceeding the confines of paint and canvas, as well as the boundaries of representation and abstraction, his canvasses reveal the artist's mastery over both medium and muse.
Early Life in the Netherlands
Though today he is considered one of the most important figures in American art history, de Kooning was born in 1904 in Rotterdam, Netherlands. In his youth, he attended evening classes at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rotterdam, now known as the Willem de Kooning Academia. It was there where he development an appreciation for Jugendstil, the German variation of the Art Nouveau moment that was sweeping through Europe. Even more significant, however, was the impact of the Dutch De Stijl movement on the young artist. The abstract works of Piet Mondrian and the De Stijl painters, with their simplified forms and primary colors, would reverberate throughout de Kooning’s career.
De Kooning in New York
He came to the United States at the age of 22 as a penniless stowaway on a British freighter, finding work first on a coal ship and later as a house painter in New Jersey. Eventually making his way to New York City, he met some of the artists active in the Modernist movement in Manhattan, most notably Arshile Gorky. His friendship with Gorky would last for decades to come, and the painter would prove to be one of the greatest guides in de Kooning’s pursuit of a unique, personal style. As de Kooning once said, “I met a lot of artists - but then I met Gorky” (Interview with David Sylvester, recorded March 1960).
The Armenian-born Gorky had arrived in America a few years before de Kooning; he earned a teaching position at the New School of Design in Boston where he taught, among others, Mark Rothko. He met de Kooning in 1929, and the two shared a studio for a number of years after. Through Gorky, de Kooning was introduced to the French masters Cézanne and Picasso, and later the Surrealists. Picasso in particular would have a tremendous influence on de Kooning’s work, with allusions to the Cubist figures in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon echoing in his Women series of the 1950s.
Arriving at Abstract Expression
During these early years, de Kooning was primarily painting still life and figural works, but it was not long before he moved towards abstraction. He worked for a time with the WPA Federal Art Project in 1935, though he was released after only a year due to his lack of citizenship. Still, the work gave him enough exposure that by 1936, de Kooning's work was hanging in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He met his future wife, Elaine Fried, in 1938 when he hired her as an apprentice; a talented artist herself, she is today considered an Abstract Expressionist of import, though she spent much of her life supporting her husband’s career.
The group that became known as the “Abstract Expressionists”, or “The New York School”, emerged in the early 1940s under the influence of both Social Realism and Cubism. Together, these painters eschewed conventional techniques and historically acceptable subjects; instead, they composed monumental works that became visual reflections of the artist’s innermost psyches. De Kooning’s now-celebrated black and white paintings from the period mark his first decisive foray into the style now regarded as Abstract Expressionism. The work earned him his first one-man show at the Charles Egan Gallery in 1948, which, at the age of 44, was a significant accomplishment in his career.
Women Series and Beyond
While he is remembered as a true pioneer of abstraction, de Kooning's oeuvre in many ways defies categorization. His lifelong devotion to the female form made de Kooning an anomaly among the Abstract Expressionists, who often teased him for his commitment to the figurative. His famed Women paintings of the 1950s and 60s represent the culmination of his figural experimentation - with their vigorous brushstrokes and melting contours, de Kooning's Women strike the perfect balance between abstraction and figuration.
During the late 1950s, he entered a period when he temporarily abandoned his renderings of the female form in favor of abstracted landscapes. Yet, even in these paintings the spirit of the womanly body prevails; they can be seen lines that suggest a feminine silhouette, as well as fleshy pink tones that permeate the canvasses.
De Kooning manages in these works what few other artists had achieved until this point. By bringing the figural to the very brink of abstraction, he positions it firmly within the realm of expressive interpretation. Through an approach entirely different from his contemporaries – most notably Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko - de Kooning attains precisely what the Abstract Expressionists strove towards. Dynamic and energetic, his work achieves expression beyond representation.