Saturday, June 7, 2014

Obituaries / Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning, who has died aged 92, was the last survivor of the founding triumvirate, with Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, of that most American of modern art movements, Abstract Expressionism.

Willem de Kooning
de Kooning in 1983 Photo: Arnold Newman/Getty Images

But de Kooning was by no means wholly American in upbringing or attitude and never completely abstract in style. Born, brought up and trained as an artist in Holland, he did not arrive in America until well into his twenties.
And at the height of the Abstract Expressionist movement in the late 1940s he could be found painting a monumental series whose subject was Women, albeit women painted on a scale and with an intensity unlike anything else in the history of art.
The all-American Pollock in de Kooning's phrase "broke the ice for all of us", blazed briefly, and burnt out; the Russian emigre Mark Rothko became boxed in by an introverted abstract style. De Kooning was left as the central figure of the New York School.
His great series of Women were in fact as important to the Pop Art movement of the 1960s as his great black and white paintings of the late 1940s had been to Abstract Expressionism. Later too, his freely painted and lyrical landscape abstractions of the 1960s and 1970s were to have an enormous influence on painters in the 1980s.
De Kooning never believed that there was any such thing as "pure" or non-objective abstraction, an art based simply on form and colour. As he remarked on the evolution of abstract art in a lecture given at the Museum of Modern Art in 1951 "for the painter to come to the `abstract' or the `nothing' he needed many things. Those things were always things in life - a horse, a flower, a milkmaid, the light in a room through a window made by diamond shapes maybe, tables, chairs and so forth."
Willem De Kooning was born on April 24 1904, in Rotterdam. His parents split up when he was five. He was assigned by the court to his father, to whom he was close, but his mother, a bar owner, first kidnapped him and then succeeded in winning custody.
This experience may have had a bearing on his celebrated pictures of women as magisterial, predatory, even ferocious totems, painted with violently expressive brushstrokes.
Young Willem left school aged 12, and was apprenticed to a firm of commercial decorators who encouraged him to attend night classes at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Art and Techniques. Over the next eight years he received a thorough training, in which academic studies were combined with practical skills such as lettering and sign-writing.
As a child he had been fascinated by the heraldic emblem of the United States, and in 1926 he crossed the Atlantic as a stowaway on an English freighter. He subsequently put together some acceptable papers, but it was to be 1962 before he became an American citizen. Until 1935, when he was publicly supported as an artist on the Federal Art Project, de Kooning made a living as a sign-writer, house-painter and odd-job man. He had to resign from the Project when it was discovered he was an alien, but by then he had decided to work full-time as an artist.
De Kooning had been living in a Manhattan studio since 1927, and through visiting the New York museums had made friends with some of the future heroes of Abstract Expressionism.
Initially, however, he painted portraits. He only arrived at abstraction after many years of painting the observable world; indeed his art, to some degree, was always to reflect the world about him, modified to express what he once described as "slipped glimpses".
He made friends with Arshile Gorky, the artistic contemporary he admired above all others. In the New York avant-garde of the war years de Kooning and Gorky were recognised as established leaders.
De Kooning's ability to exhibit was not helped by his zealous quest for perfection, which rarely enabled him to finish a painting, but it was largely the lack of an audience for modern painting that delayed his debut until 1948, the year Gorky committed suicide.
This was the period of his Woman paintings, which were to remain his most celebrated series, and fame was not long delayed; though, ironically, nothing gave his career a greater boost than a letter in 1955 by the millionaire Huntington Hartford, a bitter condemnation which was run as a full-page advertisement in every major American newspaper.
A younger artist, Robert Rauschenberg, also lent de Kooning notoriety when he furthered his own artistic name by exhibiting a piece of blank paper accurately described as "de Kooning drawing erased by Robert Rauschenberg".
Abstract Expressionism was becoming known to the world at large; New York seemed to be succeeding Paris as the capital of contemporary art. In the Cold War years de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, as the most famous abstract expressionists, came to symbolise freedom itself. This was not conducive to the privacy required for painting, and de Kooning left New York in 1963 to live at the farthest, most deserted, point of Long Island.
East Hampton suited him. Its empty roads allowed him to indulge his Dutch passion for bicycling, and its flat landscape and proximity to the sea were further reminders of Holland. "There is something about the sea that makes me feel good", he was to say. "That's where most of my paintings come from, even when I made them in New York."
Certainly there is an oceanic amplitude to de Kooning's art of the 1960s and 1970s, a mastery of orchestrated effects which came to include bronze sculpture as well as painting. He thought of Cezanne as his master, an artist similarly obsessed with the way forms connect.
Fashion, however, once again deserted him and the major retrospective exhibition that toured Europe in 1968 took place in an atmosphere hostile to the very notion of painting itself. Only 15 people showed up for a preview when the exhibition came to the Tate Gallery and for the next five years his dealer was unable to sell a single de Kooning picture.
None of this appeared to affect the man. "I'm sorry, I don't think modern art is very good, you know. I began to understand real painting when I was getting to be pretty old. Now, I can't cry the blues about it," he said in a late interview.
His spoken English remained ungrammatical and heavily accented and for relaxation in old age he liked watching television game shows. His last paintings pare form to a minimum and reduce colour to a primary red, yellow and blue.
In February 1989 de Kooning's wife, Elaine - herself a painter, whom he had married in 1943 - died. There followed a long and vexed legal battle over the custodianship of his art.
Apart from the sum of money involved (one painting alone, his 1955 masterpiece Interchange sold for a $20.6 million in 1989), the case was given added piquancy by the apparently helpless state of the artist, who had Alzheimer's disease and had been legally declared a mental incompetent.
It ended with Lisa de Kooning, his daughter, and John Eastman - the son of de Kooning's late friend and lawyer, Lee Eastman - being declared co-conservators of his estate. The canvasses continued to emerge from his studio and to find their place in the market.

1 comment:

  1. He certainly had a full life. I consider myself very fortunate to have been taught painting by one of William de Kooning's student's, Dana Loomis, at the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design back in the 70s.
    Dana was an awesome teacher, as I am certain William was.