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Willem de Kooning (American, 1904-1997)


Also known as:  de Kooning, Willem; Kooning, Willem de

Birth Place: Rotterdam (South Holland, Netherlands)

Willem de Kooning, one of the most well-known masters of Abstract Expressionism, created a body of complex work that was informed by a commercial painting career, academic training, and exposure to avant-garde artistic movements.

De Kooning was born in Holland in 1904, and at the age of 12 he began his informal artistic apprenticeship with Jan and Jay Gidding, artists at a commercial art and design firm. Concurrent to his apprenticeship, the Giddings enrolled de Kooning in night classes at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques where he received a firm grounding in academic art training. During his apprenticeship and training, de Kooning was exposed to Mondrian and the de Stijl art movement as well as the revolutionary Cubism movement. These influences can be seen throughout de Kooning’s artistic career.

Upon completion of his training, de Kooning began a commercial art career which continued when de Kooning moved to Belgium for a couple of years, and then finally to New York in 1926. During de Kooning’s time in New York, he befriended avant-garde artists such as John Graham and Arshile Gorky, and the group only further encouraged de Kooning’s interest in Cubism.

In the later 1940s, de Kooning hosted his first one-man exhibition of white and black abstractions, which put him on the map as an abstract painter. It was, however, de Kooning’s 1953 exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery that established de Kooning’s artistic reputation. The controversial series of abstracted female figures displayed at the exhibition combined de Kooning’s interest in Abstract Expressionism, Cubism, and the female figure, a theme that appears throughout his body of work. For the rest of de Kooning’s painting career he toggled between abstracted work and figure paintings of women in different roles such as sex symbols or repellant monsters. In 1969 de Kooning began to experiment with bronze sculpture, and his sculptural aesthetic implemented a dynamic push and pull of forms that echo de Kooning’s characteristic wet-on-wet painting technique.

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