Willem de Kooning: Artist Portrait

Willem de Kooning

Born 1904. Died 1997.

Willem de Kooning Biography

Willem de Kooning was among the significant artists of the Abstract Expressionist art movement. His perhaps most famous paintings from his Woman Series, begun in 1950, were characterized by a nearly violent breaking apart of the body, inspired in part by Picasso’s Cubism, but rendered with powerful, aggressive brushwork cutting through thickly impastoed paint.

De Kooning was born in Rotterdam in the Netherlands in 1904. He came to America as a stowaway on a British freight ship bound for Argentina in 1926 and jumped ship at Newport News, Virginia, making his way to New Jersey and then to Manhattan where he worked odd jobs. Whenever he could, de Kooning painted. He formed friendships with artists John Graham, Stuart Davis and Arshile Gorky, who proved especially significant to de Kooning’s development as an artist. Like many artists in the 1930s, he joined the Artists Union and worked for the Works Progress Administration. In the 1930s and early 1940s de Kooning worked on a series of portraits including his famed Portrait with Imaginary Brother, which featured the artist alongside Gorky.

In 1938, de Kooning met painter Elaine Fried and in 1943 the couple married. By the mid-1940s the artist had begun his black and white abstractions – the focus of his first one-person show at Charles Egan Gallery in 1948. The arrival of de Kooning’s Woman series in 1950 marked a watershed for Abstract Expressionism in both the painter’s singular adherence to figuration and his simultaneous painterly obliteration of the body.

Despite a long separations from Elaine, the never divorce and reunited in 1976, living in East Hampton, near their friends Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, where they lived until his death in 1997 at the age of 92. Well received in his lifetime, de Kooning showed consistently at Egan Gallery and Sidney Janis gallery both in New York De Kooning’s works are in museum collections are the world including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC, the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Desire for the artist’s works at auction is strong. According to Sotheby’s Mei Moses, the average compound annual return for Willem de Kooning resold at auction between 2003 and 2017 was 10.2% with 87.9% of 99 such works increasing in value.

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Artist Image: © 2018 The William de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris 2018 / Photograph by Jac. de Nijs / Anefo (Nationaal Archief) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons