If I stretch my arms next to the rest of myself and wonder where my fingers are—that is all the space I need as a painter.
—Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning (1904–1997) was a first-generation member of the New York School, a group of American artists who rose to prominence in the mid- to late 1940s and were noted for their dynamic, “allover” approach to abstract painting. Over a career that spanned seven decades, de Kooning’s singular contributions to abstraction and figuration set him apart from his peers, and his influence drastically shifted the direction of postwar American painting.
Born on April 24, 1904, in Rotterdam, Netherlands, de Kooning enrolled at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques at the age of thirteen, while simultaneously working as an apprentice at a commercial and decorative arts firm. He studied drawing at the academy in the evenings, and at the design firm he learned about decorative painting, creating marble and wood-grain patterns, as well as lettering. This multifaceted education equipped him with a unique skill set that would inform his mature art. In 1926 he arrived in the United States, having stowed away on a British freighter, and settled in New York the following year. It was there, on the opposite side of the Atlantic, that he would first encounter European modernism in depth, prompting him to make still lifes inspired by Henri Matisse. He would also soon meet artists Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, and John Graham, who would become close friends. In 1935 de Kooning joined the Federal Art Project, part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The experience led him to pursue painting full time. In these early years in New York, his work fluctuated between biomorphic abstraction and more traditional depictions of the figure, from Depression-era men to classical portraits of his wife, the former Elaine Fried, an artist he married in 1943. This seamless transition between styles and subject matter—and resistance to easy categorization—would become hallmarks of de Kooning’s art throughout his long career.
In the 1940s de Kooning further developed his particular style of abstraction, frequently creating complex compositions from fragments of figural drawings. These works culminated in his famous black-and-white paintings, which comprised the majority of his first solo exhibition—presented in April 1948 at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York—and were brought to conclusion with larger-scale paintings including Attic (1949) and Excavation (1950). On completion of the latter, de Kooning embarked on the series of Woman paintings for which he is most famous. Six Woman paintings and related drawings were shown together in 1953 at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, provoking heated discussion among artists, curators, and critics about the validity of representational art in the era of abstraction.
In the second half of the 1950s, de Kooning’s style shifted into abstraction based on landscapes, which he painted with muscular brushstrokes, using “the full arm sweep.” The evolution of these abstract landscapes, from what the curator and critic Thomas Hess termed “urban,” to “parkway” and then “pastoral” over the course of more than five years, mirrored de Kooning’s transition to country life. After spending increasing amounts of time on the East End of Long Island, he purchased land there in 1961 and moved there permanently in March 1963, into a home and studio he had personally designed. Inspired by the region’s diffused light, de Kooning shifted his palette to lighter, rococo hues of pinks, yellows, and blues, and he soon embarked on a new Woman series, this time depicting women exulting in the idyllic landscape. In the last two decades of his career, de Kooning remained a tireless innovator, returning with aplomb to printmaking and sculpture, both of which he had first attempted in the late 1950s, and consistently reinventing his painting style. His works of the mid- to late 1970s are noted for their highly fluid, jewel-toned abstractions of landscapes and seascapes. In the 1980s he gradually simplified this method, scraping down his many-layered surfaces to achieve a minimalistic, yet still highly complex, new style, one he continued to explore through his very last paintings.
De Kooning was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964 and has been the subject of numerous major exhibitions and publications. In 1950 he represented the United States at the 25th Biennale de Venezia, and in 1954 was the subject of a retrospective there. In 1968 Thomas Hess organized the first museum retrospective of his work for the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which traveled domestically and to Europe. De Kooning retrospectives have also been held at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and touring venues (1983–84); National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, and touring venues (1994–95, paintings); and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2011–12).
Willem de Kooning
Ten Paintings, 1983–1985
November 8–December 21, 2013
980 Madison Avenue, New York
There is Woman in the Landscapes: Willem de Kooning from 1959 to 1963
Lauren Mahony considers a critical four-year period in the painter’s career, examining the technical changes that occurred between his “abstract parkway landscapes” of the late 1950s and the “pastoral landscapes” that succeeded them, as well as the impact on his work of his impending move to Springs, New York.
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
Wyatt Allgeier discusses the 1984 Arion Press edition of John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, featuring prints by Richard Avedon, Alex Katz, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, and more.
Claude Picasso and John Richardson
Picasso biographer Sir John Richardson sits down with Claude Picasso to discuss Claude’s photography, his enjoyment of vintage car racing, and the future of scholarship related to his father, Pablo Picasso.
Jenny Saville on Willem de Kooning
In 2013, the exhibition Willem de Kooning: Ten Paintings, 1983–1985 explored the legendary artist’s late work. For the catalogue accompanying the presentation, Jenny Saville spoke on the gestures and elemental elegance of these paintings.
Tri-State Relief Fund
The Willem de Kooning Foundation, the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Teiger Foundation, and the Cy Twombly Foundation, as part of their respective COVID-19 relief efforts, have established an emergency relief grant program that will provide $1,250,000 in aid to non-salaried visual arts workers in the tristate area who have experienced financial hardship from lack of income or opportunity as a direct result of the COVID-19 crisis. The program will be administered in partnership with nonprofit arts service organization New York Foundation for the Arts.
Tri-state area of the United States
Art Basel 2019
June 13–16, 2019, booth C9
Gagosian is pleased to participate in Art Basel, presenting works by Georg Baselitz, Joe Bradley, Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning, Urs Fischer, Ellen Gallagher, Alberto Giacometti, Katharina Grosse, Mark Grotjahn, Jeff Koons, Man Ray, Albert Oehlen, Pablo Picasso, Richard Prince, Ed Ruscha, Richard Serra, Andy Warhol, Mary Weatherford, Tom Wesselmann, and Franz West, among others.
Jeff Koons, Sacred Heart (Magenta/Gold), 1994–2007 © Jeff Koons
A line (a)round an idea
Selected Works on Paper
Saturday, June 22, 2019, 11am
This event has been canceled.
Join us for a tour of A line (a)round an idea at Gagosian, Geneva. The exhibition, which presents black-and-white works on paper spanning a period of seventy years, includes work by Richard Artschwager, Georg Baselitz, Bruce Conner, Willem de Kooning, Günther Förg, Sam Francis, Keith Haring, Christine Hiebert, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, Brice Marden, Henri Matisse, Robert Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt, Richard Serra, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, and others. Gagosian’s Johan Nauckhoff will give an overview of the exhibition, focusing on ways in which modern and contemporary artists have explored the clarity and activating power of the simple line, mark, splatter, or stroke. To attend the free event, RSVP to email@example.com. Space is limited.
Installation view, A line (a)round an idea: Selected Works on Paper, Gagosian, Geneva, May 2–July 27, 2019. Artwork, left to right: © Cy Twombly Foundation; © 2019 Richard Artschwager/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; © 2019 The Franz Kline Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; © Richard Serra; © 2019 Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Drawing at Midcentury
Through June 5, 2021
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Bringing together approximately eighty works on paper from the museum’s collection, Degree Zero illuminates how artists used drawing to forge a new visual language in the aftermath of World War II. Modest, immediate, and direct, drawing was the ideal medium for this period of renewal. The exhibition looks across movements, geographies, and generations to highlight connections between artists who shared common materials and ideas between 1948 and 1961. Work by Jay DeFeo, Willem de Kooning, Alberto Giacometti, and Cy Twombly is included.
Jay DeFeo, Untitled (Florence), 1952, Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2020 The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Soutine / de Kooning
Conversations in Paint
Through August 8, 2021
Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia
Soutine / de Kooning: Conversations in Paint creates a visual dialogue and explores affinities between the work of Chaïm Soutine (1893–1943) and Willem de Kooning (1904–1997). The exhibition, which presents nearly forty-five works, considers how Soutine’s paintings, with their built-up surfaces and energetic brushwork, informed de Kooning’s art, shaping his figurative/abstract works in the late 1940s and beyond.
Willem de Kooning, Woman, 1953, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC © 2021 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
The Whitney’s Collection
Selections from 1900 to 1965
Through May 2022
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
This exhibition of more than 120 works, drawn entirely from the Whitney’s collection, is inspired by the founding history of the museum. The Whitney was established in 1930 by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney to champion the work of living American artists. A sculptor and a patron, Whitney recognized both the importance of contemporary American art and the need to support the artists who made it. The collection she assembled foregrounds how artists uniquely reveal the complexity and beauty of American life. Work by Jay DeFeo, Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Man Ray, Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol, and Tom Wesselmann is included.
Installation view, The Whitney’s Collection: Selections from 1900 to 1965, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, June 28, 2019–May 2022. Artwork, left to right: © 2020 The Jay DeFeo Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; © Norman Lewis; © 2020 The Franz Kline Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Ron Amstutz
Six Takes on the Guggenheim Collection
May 24, 2019–January 12, 2020
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
This exhibition celebrates the institution’s extensive twentieth-century holdings through the eyes of six contemporary artists, all of whom have contributed to shaping the museum’s history with their own pivotal solo shows: Cai Guo-Qiang, Paul Chan, Jenny Holzer, Julie Mehretu, Richard Prince, and Carrie Mae Weems. Through collection highlights and rarely seen works from the turn of the century to 1980, this presentation includes nearly three hundred paintings, sculptures, works on paper, and installations selected by the six artists that engage with the cultural discourse of their time. Work by Francis Bacon, Willem de Kooning, and Lawrence Weiner is included.
Works from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s collection in storage. Artwork, clockwise from top left: Jean Dubuffet, Martin Barré, and Wifredo Lam © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris; Willem de Kooning © 2020 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; David Hammons © David Hammons; Paul Wonner © Estate of Paul Wonner and William Theophilius Brown, Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, California; Cecilia Vicuña © Cecilia Vicuña; Maria Helena Vieira da Silva © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo: David M. Heald