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Willem De Kooning

(1904 - 1997)

Abstract Expressionist painter, Willem de Kooning was one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. A key figure of abstract expressionism, he is best known for a provocative series of paintings of women.

Willem de Kooning was born on April 24, 1904 in Rotterdam, Holland, to Leendert de Kooning and Cornelia Nobel. At about five years old, his parents divorced and he was raised by his mother and stepfather. In 1916, he was apprenticed to a firm of commercial artists and decorators while he attended night classes at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts. A few years later in 1920, he went on to work for the art director of a large department store.

Willem De Kooning immigrated to America at the age of twenty-two, making his home in Hoboken, New Jersey. He worked as a carpenter and house painter. A year later, he decided to move to New York and began painting still life and figure compositions. In 1927, he met artist and critic John D. Graham and painter Arshile Gorky who became one of his closest friends and mentors.

In the early 1930’s, de Kooning began exploring abstraction, with geometric works loosely related to reality, such as ‘Untitled’ (1928) and ‘The farmhouse’ (1932). He also painted murals for the Federal Arts Project before devoting himself full-time to a career as an artist in 1936.

During the 1940s, Willem de Kooning participated in group shows with other artists who would later form the Abstract Expressionists. He forged a powerful abstract style, mostly inspired by Gorsky. His first solo show took place at the Egan Gallery, New York, in 1948. It included a number of the allover black-and-white abstractions.

In the early 1950’s, de Kooning began to focus on the portrayal of women, making their female features oversized and exaggerated. His distinctive style made him an international celebrity. In the latter half of the 1950’s, his paintings focused on abstract urban landscapes, parkways, rural landscapes, and a new group of Women in the 1960s. He settled in the Springs, East Hampton, Long Island, in 1963.

In 1975, after experimenting with sculpture for two years, de Kooning started a new series of vibrantly colored abstractions. He had exhibitions at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and the Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh.

By the early 1980’s, an alcohol addiction had friends and family fearing for his life. His wife Elaine, who had lived apart from him for years, agreed to reunite with him on the condition that he get sober. He overcame his addiction and they lived happily together from 1981 on. In 1989, Willem de Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He continued to paint for a year or two, but never completed his paintings. He spent the remaining time in his studio, being nursed till his death on March 19, 1997, on Long Island.

Movements associated with Willem De Kooning:
Abstract expressionism, Dutch artists


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