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