Although considered one of the most important artists of the 20th Century and a figurehead of the Abstract Expressionist movement, it is not until now that a comprehensive survey of his career has been presented. To make up for this oversight, New York's Museum of Modern Art has devoted the entire sixth floor, approximately 17,000 square feet of exhibition space, to showcase nearly 200 drawings, sculptures and paintings covering all eras of de Kooning's work.
To answer a question that I know is lurking in the back of many readers' minds, readers who may be a little cynical about Modern Art being "art" at all - the answer is yes, Mr de Kooning is a very accomplished academic artist. In fact his formal training in Rotterdam comprised both commercial and fine art applications and his earliest works, two of which are on view here, are traditional still lifes of the finest quality. How, one might wonder, did he go from classical to abstract with such verve?
"Being anti-traditional is just as corny as being traditional" said Willem de Kooning when asked about his early work. Indeed, he is one of very few Modern artists who simultaneously worked on figural works and abstractions sometimes fusing the two ideals in one painting making it a bit of a hybrid. After emigrating to the U.S. in 1926, de Kooning emulated his colleagues Matisse, Gorky and Stuart Davis as he searched for his own voice. It did not take long to find. By the time de Kooning was 40, he was already an important figure in the New York art world and was successfully merging portraits (his series' of "Men" and "Women" paintings) with abstracted and fantastic interiors and exteriors. His method included applying layers and layers of paint over charcoal and pencil drawings giving an ethereal quality to the images underneath and allowing him to add more complexity to the final painting.
"I am not interested in abstracting or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line and color. I paint this way so I can put more and more things in - drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space". One look at his 1950 masterpiece "Excavation" and you will see what he means...
By the mid-1950s de Kooning was engrossed in one of the major transformations of his career. He began to open up his painting to a looser, more painterly approach that often combined subject with background, i.e. women with interiors or landscapes. His new "full arm sweep" approach was a dramatic change and one that cemented his reputation as the master of abstract expressionism. His colors became brighter, the feeling more joyous, and he explored new mediums such as lithography and bronze sculpture. It was a marvelous period in his work.
"Two Figures in a Landscape", 1967By the 1970s de Kooning was showing signs of Alzheimer's and years of excessive drinking had also taken their toll. His painting style became much sparer, less exuberant, and almost graphic in quality. Willem de Kooning died at his home on Long Island in 1997 at the age of 92 but his legend lives on in the history of 20th Century art.