ARTPIL Profiles of the Arts
Willem de Kooning
artist

Willem de Kooning was born on April 24, 1904, into a working class family in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Driven by an acutely perceptive mind, a strong work ethic, and persistent self doubt – coupled with the determination to achieve – the charismatic de Kooning became one of America’s and the twentieth century’s most influential artists.

Showing an interest in art from an early age, de Kooning was apprenticed to a leading design firm when he was twelve and, with its encouragement, enrolled in night school at the prestigious Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques (Academie van Beeldende Kunsten en Technische Wetenschappen te Rotterdam), which was renamed in his honor in 1998 as the Willem de Kooning Academie. With the help of his friend, Leo Cohan, in 1926 he stowed away on a ship to the United States, settling in New York City in 1927.

De Kooning became known as an “artist’s artist” among his peers in New York and then gained critical acclaim in 1948 with his first one-man exhibition held at Charles Egan Gallery, at the age of forty-four. The exhibition revealed densely worked oil and enamel paintings, including his now well-known black-and-white paintings. This exhibition was essential to de Kooning’s reputation. Shortly thereafter, in 1951, de Kooning made one of his first major sales when he received the Logan Medal and Purchase Prize from the Art Institute of Chicago for his grand-scale abstraction, Excavation (1950). This is arguably one of the most important paintings of the twentieth century. During this period, de Kooning gained the support of Clement Greenberg and later Harold Rosenberg, the two foremost and rivaling critics in New York.

De Kooning’s success did not dampen his need for exploration and experimentation. In 1953, he shocked the art world by exhibiting a series of aggressively painted figural works, commonly known as the “Women” paintings. These women were types or icons more than portraits of individuals. His return to figuration was perceived by some as a betrayal of Abstract Expressionist principles, which emphasized abstraction. He lost Greenberg’s support, yet Rosenberg remained convinced of his relevance. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, accepted de Kooning’s change in style as an advancement in his work and purchased Woman I (1950 – 1952) in 1953. What seemed to some as stylistically reactionary, to others was clearly avant-garde.

De Kooning’s dramatic rise to prominence between 1948 and 1953 was only the first act in a remarkable artistic career. While many of his contemporaries developed a mature “signature style,” de Kooning’s inquisitive spirit did not allow such constraint. Fighting adherence to any orthodoxy, he continued to explore new styles and methods, often challenging his own facility. “You have to change to stay the same,” is his frequently quoted adage.

De Kooning was awarded many honors in his lifetime, including The Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964. His works have been included in thousands of exhibitions and are in the permanent collections of many of the finest art institutions abroad, including the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Tate Modern, London; and the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; and in America such as The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

[from The Willem de Kooning Foundation]

Willem de Kooning
artist

Willem de Kooning was born on April 24, 1904, into a working class family in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Driven by an acutely perceptive mind, a strong work ethic, and persistent self doubt – coupled with the determination to achieve – the charismatic de Kooning became one of America’s and the twentieth century’s most influential artists.

Showing an interest in art from an early age, de Kooning was apprenticed to a leading design firm when he was twelve and, with its encouragement, enrolled in night school at the prestigious Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques (Academie van Beeldende Kunsten en Technische Wetenschappen te Rotterdam), which was renamed in his honor in 1998 as the Willem de Kooning Academie. With the help of his friend, Leo Cohan, in 1926 he stowed away on a ship to the United States, settling in New York City in 1927.

De Kooning became known as an “artist’s artist” among his peers in New York and then gained critical acclaim in 1948 with his first one-man exhibition held at Charles Egan Gallery, at the age of forty-four. The exhibition revealed densely worked oil and enamel paintings, including his now well-known black-and-white paintings. This exhibition was essential to de Kooning’s reputation. Shortly thereafter, in 1951, de Kooning made one of his first major sales when he received the Logan Medal and Purchase Prize from the Art Institute of Chicago for his grand-scale abstraction, Excavation (1950). This is arguably one of the most important paintings of the twentieth century. During this period, de Kooning gained the support of Clement Greenberg and later Harold Rosenberg, the two foremost and rivaling critics in New York.

De Kooning’s success did not dampen his need for exploration and experimentation. In 1953, he shocked the art world by exhibiting a series of aggressively painted figural works, commonly known as the “Women” paintings. These women were types or icons more than portraits of individuals. His return to figuration was perceived by some as a betrayal of Abstract Expressionist principles, which emphasized abstraction. He lost Greenberg’s support, yet Rosenberg remained convinced of his relevance. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, accepted de Kooning’s change in style as an advancement in his work and purchased Woman I (1950 – 1952) in 1953. What seemed to some as stylistically reactionary, to others was clearly avant-garde.

De Kooning’s dramatic rise to prominence between 1948 and 1953 was only the first act in a remarkable artistic career. While many of his contemporaries developed a mature “signature style,” de Kooning’s inquisitive spirit did not allow such constraint. Fighting adherence to any orthodoxy, he continued to explore new styles and methods, often challenging his own facility. “You have to change to stay the same,” is his frequently quoted adage.

De Kooning was awarded many honors in his lifetime, including The Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964. His works have been included in thousands of exhibitions and are in the permanent collections of many of the finest art institutions abroad, including the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Tate Modern, London; and the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; and in America such as The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

[from The Willem de Kooning Foundation]

  • asheville-1948
  • Gotham-News-1955
  • Excavation-1950
  • no-title-1988
  • Woman-1948
  • Composition-1945
  • Elegy-c.-1939
  • Pink-Landscape-c.-1938
  • Seated-Figure-Classic-Male-c.-1941-43
  • Study-for-the-Williamsburg-Project-c.-1936
  • Seated-Man-Clown-1941
  • Suburb-in-Havana-1958
  • The-Wave-c.-1942–44
  • Two-Standing-Men-1938
  • Untitled-Abstraction-c.-1931
  • Untitled-1938
  • Untitled-c.-1928
  • Woman-Portrait-of-Elaine-c.-1942
  • Portrait-of-Renée-1924
  • Untitled-Study-Women-c.-1948
  • Black-and-White-Abstraction-1950–51
  • no-title-c.-1970-79
  • Woman-with-Corset-and-Long-Hair-1971
  • Untitled-c.-1975-80
  • Portrait-of-Elaine-1940-41
  • Reclining-Nude-Portrait-of-Juliet-Browner-c.-1938
  • Hostess,-1973
  • Clamdigger-1972