"I don't paint for a living. I paint to live. That's how I live," Willem de Kooning frequently told visitors to his studio. The man regarded as America's greatest living painter died March 19. In his long career, he pioneered the style of painting known as Abstract Expressionism. Also called Action Painting, this approach glorified the process of painting as a defining moment that encapsulates the artist's emotions, thoughts, and very being.
Born in Rotterdam, de Kooning received classical training in art at Rotterdam Academy. At age 22, he stowed away on a freighter bound for New York. After working as a house painter and commercial artist, the WPA Federal Art Project during the Great Depression gave de Kooning freedom to experiment with abstraction. Influenced by avant-garde artists like Stuart Davis and Arshile Gorky, he committed himself to full-time painting in 1936.
De Kooning's first one-man show in 1948 exhibited exclusively black-and-white paintings - a palette chosen because of the artist's poverty. Along with Jackson Pollock, his reputation was already established among artists as the painter to reckon with. De Kooning invented a new language for art. Its vocabulary was shape, color, and line applied in an all-over composition. Its syntax was a brushstroke expressing both energy and thought. An icon of modern art, "Woman I," which de Kooning constantly revised from 1950-52, repainting it hundreds of times, is emblematic of his approach. He laid on vibrant colors like apple green and salmon pink in bravura, aggressive strokes. Then, driven by both a work ethic and self-criticism, he scraped away pigment and detail, layering and reworking the picture. The encounter with the canvas was seen as an act of self-revelation. The fierce image that resulted, painted in a series of heavily impastoed figures over the years, aroused great controversy. …