De Kooning was the last to die from the legendary post-war generation, now known under the heading of Action Painters or Abstract Expressionists. He spawned together with this generation, an internationally recognizable American art. Because of this achievement, I am surprised to recall that De Kooning is actually European in origin.
Willem de Kooning was born in Rotterdam in 1904 and received an academic painting and design training there as well as in Brussels and Antwerp. In 1926 he moved to the United States. He made a living as a sign painter and display window decorator and through temporary employment in the State Support Projects for Artists during the Depression (W.P.A. Federal Art Project). This encourages him to become more involved in art. He is a close friend of the Armenian painter Arshile Gorky, who also influenced him artistically.
It was evident since the late thirties that de Kooning’s painting vacillates between the poles of abstract and representational painting. They are sometimes tentatively united in the same picture. Also around this time, the two basic themes of de Kooning’s painting emerged: the landscape and the human figure, which is mostly isolated and almost always a woman. Both subjects run parallel at the beginning. Around 1938, for example, his “pink landscape”, is reduced to the simplest of luminous color surfaces. At the same time he painted, “two men standing”, a picture of a person rendered in sombre tones. Over time, the landscape and figure merge with each other and lose their objective differences and become an occasion for a liberating language of form, albeit mostly with a vocabulary of biomorphism. A highlight is the painting “Excavation”, shown at the Venice Biennale in 1950, completely filled in an over-all mania, the pictorial space condensed into a surface, with sharp-edged forms that seem to oppose each other and only leaves a hint of the concrete wall.
In the same year de Kooning’s used well-known series of women, emerged from countless overpaintings. The woman appears as a monstrous hetaera with wide-open eyes, bare teeth, big-breasted and broad-assed, with heavy legs on the ground. She finds her extension in Pop Art in the armored “icons of sexual denial,” as Peter Gorsen called the dolls of Richard Lindner. De Kooning’s overpowering, demonic females seem frozen in a wild, aggressively applied, tattered, splintered color-bar framework, which gives free rein to representational associations, but more than that banishes psychic-emotional moods, thus turning the pictorial means into self-expression.
In his women series, the female body is a battlefield, or a field for male aggression and desire. The woman is irrational, dirty, vicious, and lustful. The pictures are not peculiar in depicting horror and fascination lying close to each other. In later works, the vivaciousness that dissects is lost in “women landscapes” in favor of curved, pasty brushstrokes, brighter and more saturated colors. In recent years, de Kooning has found an almost serene, calmer style of painting that uses sovereign gestures to express a free pictorial language developed over decades.
Although latently gestural, one can find it difficult to place the forms of his bronze sculptures beside his women landscapes. The sculptures developed in the fifties but coming from the tradition of Rodin, and could be compared with the “Baroque” sculpture of Jacques Lipchitz. Various influences coming from cubism and surrealism are amalgamated in de Kooning to an individual image expression. His work is not stylelessness that gained form but a synthesis of styles, held together by a strong and impulsive painterly thinking.