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Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning in his studio, Long Island, New York, 1967. Photo by Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images. Artwork © 2020 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Willem de Kooning, Figure in Landscape I, circa 1951, oil and enamel on paperboard mountrd on fiberboard, 24 1/2 x 14 1/2 inches (62.2 x 36.8 cm)

Willem de Kooning, a leading figure of Abstract Expressionism, was born on April 24, 1904 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. De Kooning entered the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts & Letters in 1916, where he studied until 1925. De Kooning then immigrated to the United States in 1926, and worked as a house painter in Hoboken, New Jersey before relocating to New York City in 1927. Once in New York, de Kooning worked a variety of odd jobs until 1935, when he was employed by the mural and easel divisions of the WPA Federal Art Project. After this time, de Kooning painted full-time, and was influenced primarily by Cubism and Surrealism, and artists such as Picasso and Gorky, with whom he shared a studio.

De Kooning's first solo exhibition was held at the Egan Gallery, New York in 1948, establishing the artists' reputation. The show consisted largely of black-and-white abstract paintings of densely worked oil and enamel. In the early 1950s, he began to paint his now celebrated “Women” series. These aggressively painted female figures shocked the art world when they were first exhibited, as much for the way they were painted as for de Kooning’s return to figuration, which many in his circle deemed as a betrayal of Abstract Expressionist principles. However, the Museum of Modern Art, New York saw their importance, and purchased “Woman I” (1950-1052) in 1953.

The 1960s yielded works of abstract urban landscapes and a new group of “Women”. In 1963, de Kooning moved to the town of Springs, dividing his time between Long Island and Manhattan before permanently relocating to Springs in 1971. The light and landscape of the East Hampton town reminded him of Holland, and opened up his canvases to include softer colors and more loosely painted forms. Paintings from the 1980s continue this thread even further, with large swaths of subtly toned white canvas augmented by ethereal, ribbon-like strokes of color.

In 1968, the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam held a retrospective of de Kooning's work, for which the artist returned to the Netherlands for the first time since 1926. After beginning his first sculpture work in 1969 while in Rome, the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis organized an exhibition of the artists' sculptures in 1974, which travelled throughout the United States. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York followed in 1979 with an exhibition of the artists' recent works, and in 1997 the Museum of Modern Art, New York, honored the artist with a retrospective, followed again by a retrospective in 2012. His works can be found in the permanent collection of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; the Tate Modern, London; the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., among many others.

Willem de Kooning died on March 19, 1997 on Long Island.

quote

“I'm not interested in 'abstracting' or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line, and color. I paint the way I do because I can keep on putting more and more things in - like drama, pain, anger, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas of space. It doesn't matter if it differs from mine, as long as it comes from the painting, which has its own integrity and intensity.”

- WILLEM DE KOONING

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