“I am an eclectic artist by choice; I can open almost any book of reproductions and find a painting I could be influenced by.” Willem de Kooning.
De Kooning was born in Rotterdam where his father was a liquor dispenser and his mother ran a sailor’s bar on the waterfront. He was apprenticed to a commercial art and decorating firm in Rotterdam aged 12 and for the next eight years studied at night at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts. In 1926 he headed to America as a stowaway and settled in New York. He worked as a house-painter, signwriter and carpenter until 1935 when he became involved in the Federal Art Project, a government supported project assisting artists cope during the Depression involving commissioning works to decorate public buildings and places.
De Kooning became one of the major exponents of Abstract Expressionism. He was greatly influenced by his close friend, the painter Arshile Gorky. His early paintings, focusing on figures of clothed men, contain elements inspired by Gorky’s work as well as that of Picasso and Ingres. In 1948, with his first one-man show, de Kooning was painting in an extremely abstract style, frequently in black and white in the vein of Jackson Pollock though retaining a definite figurative quality in his work. This exhibition was to establish his reputation, confirmed two years later, with one of his most admired works ‘Excavation’ (1950). In 1953 de Kooning’s ‘Women’ series caused a sensation. ‘Woman I’ (1950-1952), with its glaring black eyes and disturbing grin provoked dismay amongst critics and public alike, yet it became one of the most reproduced paintings in the USA.
By the late Fifties de Kooning moved to Long Island, although he still commuted back and forth to Manhattan, a journey that is represented in his highway images of 1957 to 1958. De Kooning returned to Holland in 1968 for a major retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. A year later he began to sculpt, modelling figures in clay and later casting them in bronze.
De Kooning’s work can be characterised by his energetic brush strokes and striking configurations. After years of alcoholism which clearly affected the quality of a lot of his work, he became teetotal in 1980 and embarked on a prolific phase, producing over 300 pieces up to 1990. To many his later work is unsatisfying, nevertheless de Kooning’s most famous works have been hugely influential.