Willem de Kooning: Pioneer of Abstract Art

The man from Rotterdam brought to America the radically new movement of Abstract Expressionism, which has influenced generations of artists

"I don't paint for a living. I paint to live. That's how I live," Willem de Kooning frequently told visitors to his studio. The man regarded as America's greatest living painter died March 19. In his long career, he pioneered the style of painting known as Abstract Expressionism. Also called Action Painting, this approach glorified the process of painting as a defining moment that encapsulates the artist's emotions, thoughts, and very being.

Born in Rotterdam, de Kooning received classical training in art at Rotterdam Academy. At age 22, he stowed away on a freighter bound for New York. After working as a house painter and commercial artist, the WPA Federal Art Project during the Great Depression gave de Kooning freedom to experiment with abstraction. Influenced by avant-garde artists like Stuart Davis and Arshile Gorky, he committed himself to full-time painting in 1936.

De Kooning's first one-man show in 1948 exhibited exclusively black-and-white paintings - a palette chosen because of the artist's poverty. Along with Jackson Pollock, his reputation was already established among artists as the painter to reckon with. De Kooning invented a new language for art. Its vocabulary was shape, color, and line applied in an all-over composition. Its syntax was a brushstroke expressing both energy and thought.

An icon of modern art, "Woman I," which de Kooning constantly revised from 1950-52, repainting it hundreds of times, is emblematic of his approach. He laid on vibrant colors like apple green and salmon pink in bravura, aggressive strokes. Then, driven by both a work ethic and self-criticism, he scraped away pigment and detail, layering and reworking the picture. The encounter with the canvas was seen as an act of self-revelation.

The fierce image that resulted, painted in a series of heavily impastoed figures over the years, aroused great controversy. Some saw "Woman" as misogynistic, with its bug eyes and voracious, toothy grin.

De Kooning's paintings convey an impression of velocity and spontaneity, like the improvisatory jazz he and his colleagues loved.

But they required a turbulent process of discovery. His extraordinary ability to manipulate paint and uncover his version of a subject's truth exacted a high price. One painting he named "No Fear but a Lot of Trembling" suggests his struggle. At their best, de Kooning's works convey this headlong risk-taking. He piled on paint, putting his skills and vision on the line.

By the 1980s, after decades of alcoholism, de Kooning suffered increasing mental confusion. A current show of his later works at the Museum of Modern Art through April 29 includes paintings with his characteristic line and color but none of the exploratory persistence of his earlier work.

In 1979, de Kooning told art critic Amei Wallach, "I've lost the touch." In his East Hampton, N.Y., studio where he lived and worked from 1963, he admitted, "I know that the light has gone." Working on motor memory, he could still execute paintings aided by assistants, but the essential elements of concept and sustained reasoning were missing. The late works are airy and empty, full of ribbons of color, but their light has gone out.

De Kooning's career coincided with, and helped to catalyze, the shift in balance of power from Paris to New York. In the 1950s, New York became the center of artistic innovation, and de Kooning's work profoundly influenced subsequent generations of artists. In his heyday, the Dutch master who loved his adopted country with an immigrant's passion, gave America an artist of international stature, ranking among the giants of the 20th century.

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