de Kooning, Willem

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

de Kooning, Willem

Willem de Kooning (də kōō´nĬng), 1904–97, American painter, b. Netherlands; studied Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques. De Kooning immigrated to the United States, arriving as a stowaway in 1926 and settling in New York City, where he worked on the Federal Arts Project (1935). He began experiments with abstraction as early as 1928, but continued to produce realistic paintings throughout the 1930s, and he later oscillated between an abstracted figuration and pure abstraction. Influenced by Arshile Gorky, de Kooning forged a powerful abstract style and in the 1940s became a leader of abstract expressionism. In his monumental series of the early 1950s entitled Woman, he reintroduced a representational element. Woman I (1950–52; Mus. of Modern Art, New York City), with its startling ferocity, brought him considerable notice and some notoriety. He subsequently reverted chiefly to nonfigurative work, but during the 1960s, when he moved to Long Island, he also produced more paintings of women as well as many works with landscape elements. In this period de Kooning also created semiabstract sculptural figures in bronze and several lithographs. He created a dazzling group of painterly abstractions in the 1970s.

Slashed with color and formed with eloquent brushstrokes, de Kooning's often huge canvases are charged with explosive energy; many are widely considered some of the masterpieces of abstract expressionism. His last works, produced (1980–90) when he was increasingly affected by Alzheimer's disease, include hundreds of large canvases in elegantly composed configurations; their elements are pared down, and their limited, mainly primary colors form sinuously intertwining ribbons. In some sense, de Kooning's art endured amid his encroaching dementia until he stopped painting in mid-1990. He was married to the painter Elaine Fried de Kooning (1920–1989).

See biographies by H. F. Gaugh (1983), L. Hall (1993, repr. 2000), and M. Stevens and A. Swan (2004); studies by H. Rosenberg (1974), D. Waldman (1978 and 1988), D. Cateforis (1994), D. Sylvester et al. (1994), G. Garrels and R. Storr (1995), S. Yard (1997), K. Kertess et al. (1998), C. Morris (1999), E. Liever (2000), and S. F. Lake (2010).

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