If Jackson Pollock was the public face of the New York avant-garde, Willem de Kooning could be described as an artist’s artist, who was perceived by many of his peers as its leader. He was born in Rotterdam, where he grew up in an impoverished household and attended the Rotterdam Academy, training in fine and commercial arts. In 1926, the adventurous young artist stowed away on a ship bound for Argentina. While the ship was docked in Virginia, de Kooning slipped off, skirted immigration, and made his way to New Jersey—and so began the rest of his life.

In New Jersey, de Kooning found work as a house painter. Large brushes and fluid paints were the tools of this trade, ones that he would continue to utilize throughout his artistic career. His dual foundations in drawing and craftsmanship underlay all of his work, even his most abstract paintings.

De Kooning’s next stop was New York, where he forged his artistic career. The Jazz Age was in full swing when he moved to the city, and he quickly fell under the sway of the lyrical freedom of jazz and the abstract art made by other artists under its influence. New York also brought him into contact with the work of Henri Matisse and with contemporaries including John Graham and Arshile Gorky, with whom he developed a particularly close and inspiring friendship.

In 1929, the Great Depression brought the Jazz Age to a crashing end. As part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) program, in the 1930s de Kooning was commissioned to design public murals; he worked under Fernand Léger, who proved to be an important influence. Though his studies for the murals were never realized, they were among his first abstractions, and the experience of working on this project spurred him to pursue art making full-time.

By the 1940s, de Kooning had gained prominence as an artist. Over the course of a career lasting nearly seven decades, he would work through a wide array of styles, eventually cementing himself as a crucial link from New York School painting to European modernism. Physical labor and countless revisions were constants in his work, which ranged from abstraction to figuration, often merging the two. “I never was interested in how to make a good painting…,” he once said. “I didn’t work on it with the idea of perfection, but to see how far one could go…”1 The female figure was an especially fertile subject for the artist. His paintings of women were among his most controversial works during his lifetime and continue to be debated today.

Introduction by Karen Kedmey, independent art historian and writer, 2017

  1. John Elderfield, de Kooning: a Retrospective, (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2011), 18. 

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Willem de Kooning (; Dutch: [ˈʋɪləm də ˈkoːnɪŋ]; April 24, 1904 – March 19, 1997) was a Dutch-American abstract expressionist artist who was born in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and moved to New York in 1927. In the post-World War II era, de Kooning painted in a style that came to be referred to as Abstract expressionism or "action painting", and was part of a group of artists that came to be known as the New York School. Other painters in this group included Jackson Pollock, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann, Adolph Gottlieb, Anne Ryan, Robert Motherwell, Philip Guston, Clyfford Still, and Richard Pousette-Dart. In September 2015 David Geffen sold de Kooning's oil painting Interchange for $300 million to hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin. As of 2016 this is the highest price paid for a painting, even when inflation is taken into account, almost matched by the sale of Paul Gauguin's When Will You Marry? in February 2015 for close to $300 million.
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