Willem De Kooning Famed Painter, Dies Abstract Expressionist, 92, Helped Lift U.S. Artists

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Willem de Kooning, whose swirls and slashes of color helped define abstract expressionism and made him one of the 20th century's greatest painters, died in his studio Wednesday (March 19, 1997). He was 92.

Mr. de Kooning had suffered in recent years from Alzheimer's disease and died of natural causes, said his attorney, John Silberman.

Mr. de Kooning's abstract expressionist works included traces of the earlier surrealist movement and prefigured Pop art. Along with Jackson Pollock, he led the group of artists who helped New York replace Paris as the center of the art world in the years after World War II. Mr. de Kooning "cured America of its inferiority complex toward Europe," said Peter Schjedahl, a New York art critic. "America had a sense that we could never do it as well as Europe could, and (he) ended that." Mr. de Kooning painted daily until the late 1980s, even after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. In 1989, after a bitter court fight, he was declared mentally incompetent, and control of his estate was given to his attorney and his daughter, Lisa, who is his only survivor. Among his meticulously composed canvases was his 1944 "Pink Lady," which brought $3.63 million at auction in 1987. Two years later, his 1955 masterpiece "Interchange" sold for a stunning $20.6 million. Vintage works consistently sold for more than $1 million. Born in Rotterdam, Netherlands, he was the son of a wine and beer distributor and a barmaid. They divorced when he was 5, and his father got custody. But his mother took him away by force - a fact that critics made much of in later years. Employed by age 12 in a commercial art firm, Mr. de Kooning studied for eight years at Rotterdam's leading art school and came to the United States as a stowaway in 1926, ending up in Hoboken, N.J. He learned English while working as a house painter and commercial artist. His first one-man show took place in 1948, when he was 44. When his canvas "Excavation" won the major prize at the Art Institute of Chicago's 1 951 exhibition, it was viewed as a vindication for abstract expressionism, the movement that stresses the depiction of emotion through shapes and colors. …