Monday, March 4, 2013

Willem de Kooning (Written by Emily Lee)

Willem de Kooning (April 24, 1904 ~ March 19, 1997)

Willem de Kooning is a Dutch-American Abstract Expressionist painter born in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Throughout his lifetime, he simultaneously practiced figurative and abstract art. He was a part of a clique of artists called the New York School, which included prominent artists such as Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky.
De Kooning is a particularly interesting artist because as he lived long and painted for a number of decades leaving numerous art works, his style transformed significantly. I had the privilege of seeing the master collection of his lifetime work in 2011 in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, as I was participating in Duke in New York Arts and Media Program. The Museum of Modern Arts began an extensive special exhibition of Willem de Kooning under the name, de Kooning: A Retrospective from September 2011 to January 2012. Over 200 pieces of de Kooning’s works from different stages of his career were exhibited. With this exhibition, de Kooning became even more prominent, being compared to artists like Kandinsky.

Artworks from different stages of life:
Excavation (1950)

Excavation (1950) is a 205.7 x 254.6 cm large painting that exemplifies the artist’s expressive brushwork and abstract expressionist style. There is a tension between abstraction and figuration in this painting, with mobile structures of hooked, calligraphic lines that define anatomical parts—i.e. birds, fish, human eyes, noses, teeth, and jaws. Although de Kooning’s painting seem rather speedily or carelessly done, in fact, he engaged in a long, technologically masterful painting process. He built up thick layers of paint and scraped down for months to achieve his desired effects.

Woman III (1953)
De Kooning began his famous painting series of women in early 1950s. The painting above is Woman III , of his series Woman I~VI. In these paintings, de Kooning’s aggressive brushwork and blatant imagery is most notable. He painted women with enlarged eyes, toothy snarls, and pendulous breasts, mostly in high-key colors. Experts posit this illustrates modern man’s most widely held sexual fears. All six paintings in the series and Woman and Bicycle (1953) and Two Women in the Country (1953) are all variants on this theme and have similar grotesque aura.
Bolton Landing (1957)
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, de Kooning turned to painting abstractions of landscapes rather than human figures. This painting, along with Door to the River (1960) is representative of such themes. De Kooning shows broad brushstrokes and calligraphic tendencies with these paintings. 

Untitled XIX (1983)

De Kooning’s latest works, in the 1980s, were simplified with mainly red, white, yellow, and blue colors. Experts debate over the significance over his works from this stage of life. Some argue it displays a new direction of style, while others claim his mental conditions rendered him unable to carry out the mastery of his earlier career. De Kooning was, in fact, diagnosed of Alzheimer's desease in his later years, and died in 1989. 

It is interesting to see how de Kooning's paintings vary so significantly between different stages of his career. It is almost difficult to believe that all of these paintings are works of the same artist. De Kooning's innovations, and long career enabled such vast collection of master works. 


Cotter, H. (2011, September 15). Unfurling a life of creative exuberance. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Perreault, J. (2010). De kooning revived: Anger, amour, anxiety. Artopia, Retrieved from

Willem de Kooning. (2013). In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from

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