Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning. Woman III - a painting by the abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning, painted in 1953
Woman III – a painting by the abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning, painted in 1953

Willem de Kooning is a genius American painter of the 20th century, the founder of abstract expressionism. His work has become a landmark in the history of avant-garde art. The artist’s biography is an eternal search and constant movement forward. An incredible energy is felt in the paintings of Willem de Kooning, they are stunning, mesmerizing.

Willem de Kooning won a lifetime of fame. He said, “Change to stay the same,” and he always adhered to his rule.

Woman I (1952). Willem de Kooning
Woman I (1952)


Willem de Kooning is a native of the Netherlands. He was born on April 24, 1904, the parents divorced shortly after the birth of the baby. At 12, the boy dropped out of school and went to work in a design firm.

In 1922, the young man entered the Rotterdam Academy of Arts and Crafts (officially named after him in 1998) for evening courses. While Europe was discovering cubism, abstractionism, and later surrealism, Willem Kooning’s teachers admired the Barbizon people. The young man dreamed of becoming a fashionable artist, and such painting seemed to him to be an occupation for old people …

Excavation. Willem de Kooning

Working as an assistant to the art director of a large department store, de Kooning took up a brush in his spare hours. Having received his diploma in 1926, all of a sudden for everyone (and even for himself) Willem de Kooning “like a hare” sailed to the United States on a British cargo ship.

A stowaway disembarked in the summer of 1926 at Newport News, Virginia. He stayed at a boarding house for Dutch sailors, worked as a painter, and in 1927 moved to Manhattan. There he befriended the eminent painters Arshile Gorky, Stuart Davis and John D. Graham, a Russian-born modernist painter. In America, progressive art was appreciated as nowhere else, and Willem plunged headlong into creativity. New York, the embodiment of the “American Dream”, became his favorite home for 70 years.

Whose Name Was Writ in Water
Whose Name Was Writ in Water

At first, Willem de Kooning painted still lifes, and in the 1930s he became interested in abstract art.

He tried a variety of techniques, experimented with materials. The individual style of the master was finally formed in the late 1930s, under the influence of the works of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro i Ferra.

In 1943, the painter married an ambitious young colleague, Elaine Marie Fried. Now a union of this kind would be called an “open marriage”: both had affairs on the side, and one of the passions of the genius even gave birth to a child from him. Husband and wife were united by art, a free view of love and … alcohol. It was the latter that, 15 years later, led to a break in relations. After spending almost two decades apart, the couple reunited, and until the end of Helene’s life, the couple did not part.

Reclining Man (John F. Kennedy)
Reclining Man (John F. Kennedy)

In 1948, the artist’s first exhibition was held, which became his triumph. In 1951, Willem de Kooning received the prize for his large-scale painting “Excavations”, considered one of the most iconic works of art of the 20th century. And written in an aggressive manner, embodying the hidden fears of people, the series “Women” turned out to be a real sensation both for the public and for critics.

Gradually, the color palette softens, the shapes become smooth, fluid, and the shapes become conditional. The master gravitates more and more towards landscape motives.

In the 1970s, the artist creates voluptuous, brightly colored, sensual abstractions. Every year de Kooning, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, wrote less, but the demand for his early works only grew. Daughter Lisa devotedly looked after him until her death on March 19, 1997.

Saturday Night
Saturday Night

The most famous paintings by Willem de Kooning

The eccentric, multifaceted, emotionally explosive works of Willem de Kooning are mysteries for the viewer. Forms, as if immersed in a raging sea of ​​expression, give rich food to the imagination. Among the best paintings by Willem de Kooning:

  1. Excavation (1950) is a spectacular labyrinth without a single entry point. The viewer’s gaze runs across the canvas, and when he is ready to go beyond the limits of the image, the turn of the line encourages a new viewing.
  2. “Woman I” (1952) – predatory grinning teeth and huge empty eyes frighten, but also attract attention.
  3. “Woman III” (1953) – the author worked on the picture with “special cruelty”, sometimes even tearing the canvas with a brush. In 2006, the work was sold for $ 137.5 million. “Marilyn Monroe” (1954) – the actress resembling a mannequin is completely devoid of attractiveness.
  4. The Exchange (1955) is a landscape that marked a change in the artist’s style under the influence of Franz Kline. In 1989, this painting, bought for $ 20.7 million, broke the record for the cost of a work of art by a living author.
Gotham News
Gotham News

In 2015, the financier Ken Griffin (Kenneth Cordele Griffin) acquired “Exchange” for $ 300 million. As of 2017, in price it was second only to the “Savior of the World” by the great Leonardo da Vinci, who left the auction for $ 450. 3 million.

Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning
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