Willem De Kooning Willem De Kooning had been widely acknowledged as one of the greatest painters of this century known for his daring originality. Several exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad have celebrated the artistic achievements of this eminent artist’s 60- year career. My essay covers part of his early life with real focus on his late paintings. His last works, painted in the 1980s, as he was in deteriorating health have come under criticism by some critics.
Willem de Kooning was born on April 24, 1904 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. His father was a beer distributor and his mother ran a bar. At the age of twelve he became an apprentice at a commercial design and decorating firm. He studied for eight years at Rotterdam’s leading art school. In 1926, de Kooning secured a passage on a streamer to the United States, illegally entering and settling in New Jersey.
He quickly moved to Manhattan, painted signs and worked as a carpenter in New York City. Then in 1935, he landed a job with the Works Progress Administration, a government agency that put artists to work during the Great Depression. By the next decade, he had attained a place in the downtown art scene among his fellow artists. By the late 1940s, de Kooning along with Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, began to be recognized as a major painter in a movement called “Abstract Expressionism”. This new school of thought shifted the center of twentieth century art form Paris to New York. Willem de Kooning was recognized as the only painter who had one foot in Europe and one in America. He combined classical European training in Holland with a love for popular American culture. The restlessness and energy of American life was a source of great inspiration and passion for him. Gary Garrells, the chief curator at the San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art said, ” He had the wildness of Pollock but mixed with the impeccable craftsmanship of the European tradition.
He was not interested in style, he was interested in the process of looking and knowing and getting under the skin.” Willem de Kooning, 93, was the last survivor of his famous peers. One would not have predicted for him a great old age. Among the leading figures of hard-living generation he belonged by temperament and talent to a romantic tradition of artists who burned the physical and psychic fuel of themselves with devastating speed and completeness. Few of de Kooning’s closest friends and colleagues survived the harshness of the 1940s and 1950s. In 1948, Arshile Gorky, De Kooning’s mentor for his studio on the eastern end of Long Island, committed suicide at 48. In 1956, Jackson Pollock at the age of 44, killed himself in a drunken roadside collision.
In 1962, Franz Kline gave himself away to a heart attack at 52. Three years later David Smith died in a car crash at 59 and in 1970 Mark Rothko, slit his wrists while battling ever-deepening alcoholic depression. Willem de Kooning was the principal member of the Abstract Expressionism. Abstract Expressionism gave birth as a reaction to years of struggle against conservative taste, improvised circumstances and reinforced by confused feelings created after World War II. De Kooning was celebrated for his ferocious Women painting in 1950s.
In 1956, he took a break form Women theme, and started to paint small, packed shapes with a feel for city. Woman merged into an urban landscape filled with small, interchangeable parts of the metropolitan environment. In 1963, he began a new series of Women. He painted women on tall door panels. De Kooning’s art was of mutually exclusive contradictions without the resolution of synthesis, of harmony and balance. By the end of 1970s, he had reached a point of near total spiritual exhaustion- partly due to heavy drinking and partly for a tendency to forgetfulness and a gradual detachment from the world around him.
Much was said of Kooning about his last drawings, ” as a doodling of a helpless old man,” but the reality was quite different. De Kooning succumbed to Alzheimer disease in late 1970s. According to Peter Schjedahl, in his essay, De Kooning later life was compared to King Lear in Shakespeare’s play. It is said of him , ” The wonder is, he hath endures so long./ He but usurped his life.” Peter continued on with these lyrics of King Lear to praise De Kooning’s later life. Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’the cage. When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live, And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too, Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out; And take upon’s the mystery of things, As if we were God’s spies; and we’ll wear out, In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones That ebb and flow by the moon. “Willem De Kooning: The Late Paintings, The 1980s” , an exhibit in Modern Museum of San Fransisco, was the center of a critical controversy. He was labeled to be lost to Alzheimer’s disease and thought to be slipped from reality.
According to a critic in New York Daily, ” the paintings are like seeing a comic actor cast unexpectedly in a serious role.” She further stated that there was a evidence of loss of energy in those recent paintings. To be specific she picked Untitled XIII (1986). She criticized by saying, ” the quality of line dissolves from improvisational to conventional. Rather than making their own paths, lines become mere stripes, tracing the outlines of forms, already laid down on the canvas.” The critic accused the exhibit curator Gary Garrells of taking an unusual step of collecting a panel of experts to determine when De Kooning’s work began to lose coherence. The panel included painter Joseph Johns and curator Robert Storr of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
After close examination of his paintings the expert group determined that De Kooning’s work faltered after 1988. Gary Garrells declared the paintings made before 1988 as the most beautiful and sensual abstracts works of modern art. There was not mere criticism by critics, who even hired some neurologists to back up their claim for faulty paintings. A lot was written to acknowledge and criticize the originator of the Abstract Expressionist School. The exhibition at San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art drew paintings from private and public collections.
Most of the observers and curators called it the most fluid, sensual and celebratory works created in the twentieth century full with “luminous” strokes of yellow, red, orange and blue. The paintings were called as a beautiful interlude of the sun and sky, ocean and ballet. Another impressed critic expressed his opinion about the exhibition by declaring that De Kooning has refused to categorize his paintings throughout his career. He clearly shifted between figurative and abstract paintings and sometimes fused the two. He would reinvent his manner of working style, which eluded his critics.
This renewed his vigor, which he sustained over decades by continual invention and new vision. At the age of 75, De Kooning again shifted by another way of working. His initial acclaimed works with heavy layering of surfaces, dense and excitable strokes and rich diverse colors gave way to open and spare forms. These recent paintings had scraped and carefully constructed surfaces. The primary colors were concentrated with complements of green, orange and violet with subtly toned creamy backgrounds.
These paintings reminded of his 1930s and1940s work with an assurance e and freedom only attained by a master painter. Robert Storr, curator from New York’s Museum of Modern Art was one of the coordinator of his last exhibition. He wrote in Winter/Spring 1997 issue of MOMA Magazine that the story of De Kooning in the 1980s is that of a nearly miraculous recovery of focus and ambition. After several years, De Kooning was newly sober and had astounding determination to resolve outstanding issues of his works. Knowing that failure would have confirmed the opinion of those who were expecting his decline, he said, “Failure ought to take your whole life, active life.” His final creative burst had a sheer number of canvases resembling Women 1,his earlier acclaimed effort. Storr narrates in his essay, that films of the artist at work show that he would labor over certain passages, rephrase a curve, cancel out large, complex areas thus creating a clearly legible distribution of bounded shapes, flowing lines and open spaces.
He was confident of his freedom to paint with all creative restraint. These films produced an uncanny experience reading the tracks of brush across the canvas. These moves would envy anyone then painting. Moving away from Abstract Expressionism, he dwelled on various techniques of neo- expressionism. By virtue of its freshness, De Kooning’s works will be placed in the foreground of any accurate picture of this period. I think De Kooning life’s art achievement speak for themselves by its demand and recognition in the art world.
As the controversy surrounding his late works Kooning was an imaginative which was not easy to be understood by his few contemporaries. He could be likened to Beethoven who created his masterpiece Ninth Symphony when he could hear single word of formed music. A genius in his own department De Kooning, in spite of his progressive disease, created something original and fresh away form his earlier works.