Willem de Kooning: The Revolutionist Who Came Full Circle And Changed The Art World Forever

By  | 

One could argue that Willem de Kooning was the head of the 3-pronged trident that was responsible for the creation of abstract expressionism. Together with the Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, the threesome pioneered abstractionism and left a legacy of works that have become the most sought-after in history. What is not up for debate, however, is de Kooning’s place in history, he was simply an unstoppable force whose works will surely be exhibited for hundreds of years as a form of unbridled, pure expression of artistic ability. He contributed not only to the birth of abstract impressionism but so too the pop art movement. Cubism, surrealism, and expressionism would form the bulk of his style and rarely would a piece exhibit only one these at a time. He was never overly careful with his paint, and his creations featured vivid palettes that bordered on overwhelming.

Born in 1924 to a working class family in Rotterdam, but the union of mother and father would not last past his 5th birthday. His father was granted custody only for his mother to plan and successfully execute his kidnapping before gaining full custody of her son. It’s thought that his relationship with his mother was highly influential in his much-vaunted series ‘Women’, which was vigorous, even violent at times, in its deconstructed depiction of the female form. A young Willem expressed a love of art from early on and, as was common of the times, eschewed more practical schooling in favour of an apprenticeship with some commercial decorators. They immediately put him into the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts where he would be equipped with the necessary skills to pursue a career as an artist.

He had always been fascinated with the United States and stowed away on a freighter at the age of 26 to scratch a lifelong itch shared by many young European men. He was given citizenship in 1962. During his early time in America, he made money writing signs and doing various odd jobs. As is often the case with artists through history he forged early bonds with like-minded visionaries chiefly Arshile Gorky, who would go on to be one not only a dear friend but a colossal influence on his career. So too was Pablo Picasso, with de Kooning admitting that: “He is the man to beat”. Between himself and his illustrious contemporaries of the New York scene, the brilliance of Picasso served as great inspiration but also left the group deeply frustrated as they tried to keep pace with the Spaniard. Ironic that Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko would be some of the names in the embittered bunch.

In 1948 he exhibited his black and white series at the Charles Egan Gallery and quickly became known as the ‘artist’s artist.’ The oil and enamel works seemed to exist in a deeper state than any other artists of the time and in 1950 he won the prestigious Logan Award for Excavation, a magnificence of form and the expressive brushwork that had become his signature style. Excavation will surely go down as one of the most important pieces of art in history.

De Kooning’s natural inclination to experiment was symbolised by his famous quote “You have to change to stay the same,” which would come to embody his extraordinary career as he battled conventional approaches to the discipline. It was this attitude resulted in his iconic 1953 ‘Women’ series that shocked and enthralled the art world in equal measure. He was constantly challenging the norm and his own proclivities. His unparalleled appreciation of form allowed him to transition between paper and canvas easily and he produced a vast catalog of black and white works which came to be known as the ‘Rome drawings.’ De Kooning even experimented with lithography when he created ‘Waves,’ a 2 part series that became the benchmark for Abstract Expressionism in printmaking.

It was in the late fifties that de Kooning seemed to migrate to a purer form of Abstraction namely the “Urban,” “Parkway” and “Pastoral” landscapes. But his love for the abstract shape was to be a defining characteristic of his work.

“It’s really absurd to make an image, like a human image, with paint today, when you think about it, since we have this problem of doing or not doing it.  But then all of a sudden it was even more absurd not to do it.  So I fear that I’ll have to follow my desires,” he said in 1960.

Shortly after he would make a pilgrimage to the Hamptons and build an airy, light-filled studio that seemed to alter the way he evoked colour. The usually frenzied nature of his palette became much softer and less abrasive in its application and the abstract imagery more alluring than vicious.

The early seventies brought, even more, experimentation for de Kooning as he dabbled sculpture and lithography after a chance meeting with a sculptor friend in Italy. He would continue to draw and paint during a prolific period that saw him apply paints more flatly than was usual. This is thought to have stemmed from his fondness for Japanese art and design no doubt acquired during the months he spent there. It resulted in a return to the richer, more full-bodied works that will be remembered as being among his most stirring and abstract.

If de Kooning’s work until the eighties is identified as a struggle and intertwinement and general unease, then the those that followed could be interpreted as being a resolution of sorts, a calming of restless creativity, where he would create arguably his best works. There is a serenity to his work of the eighties seen nowhere else in his glittering career, a determination of perspective that allowed him to explore space as never before. The light-hearted nature found in these works came from a greater acceptance of the fact that art didn’t need to be intellectual and whimsical white backgrounds could be juxtaposed with more linear elements imbued with his traditionally vivid palette. Again, this served as a timely reminder, probably to himself as well, that the orthodoxies of art were of no importance in his art. This is seen clearly in The Key and the Parade, The Cat’s Meow and the Lampshade

In 1991 de Kooning finished his last piece and in 1997 he passed away at the age of 92. He never stopped experimenting and exploring, and it resulted in an extraordinary career spanning nearly a century. His works changed the very face of art and gave the world abstract expressionism and the courage to fly in the face of conventional wisdom. He died a hero to some and a titan to all.