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Willem de Kooning is always pushing us around, making us change our minds just when we think we finally have his art figured out. As the most venerated, yet still misunderstood and upbraided exponent of Abstract Expressionism, he continues to put stringent demands on himself as an artist and on his audience, not merely as viewers, but as participants in his creative act. In a 1958 interview with Thomas B. Hess, the highly perceptive critic, editor, and champion of de Kooning's work, the artist remarked: "I was reading Kierkegaard and I came across the phrase 'To be purified is to will one thing.' It made me sick." Constantly seeking visual predicaments, de Kooning complicates them still further, thereby affirming as an ethical decision the refusal to accept any one approach as the only possible solutioneven for his own art.
Born in Holland in 1904his surname in Dutch literally means "the king"de Kooning had an early education that was both practical and academic, a duality that has characterized his career ever since. As a teenager he was apprenticed to a commercial art and decorating firm, yet he also spent eight years at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques. By the time he sailed for the United States in 1926, he had matured as a skilled craftsman and was developing as an eclectic intellectual.
Expecting to find no art in America, he came here "feeling that this was where an individual could get places and become well off, if he worked hard; while art, naturally, was in Europe." Working first as a house painter in Hoboken, New Jersey, he soon learned that America had artists too. "There was Greenwich Village; there was a wholetradition in painting and in poetry." Indigenous to that tradition was artists' poverty. Even though he worked for the Federal Arts Project in 1935 and won a commission to design a mural for the Hall of Pharmacy at the 1939 World's Fair, poverty was a persistent threat. Among other odd jobs, he designed window displays for A. S. Beck Shoe Stores. (At one point he came up with a "Stepping in Style" theme, incorporating a series of steps.) He also painted features and clothing on flat, planklike mannequins, finishing them quite rapidlya dozen or two in a day. An early friend, the photographer Rudolph Burckhardt, recalls that de Kooning turned down a $100-per-week commercial art job in Philadelphia. "He said he'd rather be poor in New York than rich in Philadelphia." Burckhardt also remembers de Kooning's refusing to open the door to his loft at 147 West Twenty-first Street in the mid-1930s. "To get in, you had to shout through the door so that Bill would know it wasn't the landlord." When asked how things were going in those late Depression years, de Kooning's reply was an oft-repeated, "I'm struggling."
Indeed, not until the mid-1950s did de Kooning's financial situation improve through the sale of his art. No one was clamoring to buy the Women in the infamous 1953 show at the Sidney Janis Gallery; twenty-one years later, the National Gallery of Australia paid $850,000 for Woman V. De Kooning's commercial success is most significant because it enables him to devote himself to art without the once time-consuming problem of making ends meet. "It's terrific. . . I enjoy my life so much now because I can stay here [in The Springs, near East Hampton]. I can paint all the time. I don't have to do anything else." And, indeed, making art has become his predominant activityhe paints every day. "The studio is his universe now."
De Kooning's knowledge of artists and writers is extensive. For him, Michelangelo is "a force of nature," while El Greco remains perhaps the most modern of all old masters. De Kooning has read Dostoevski, Marcel Proust, Henry James, Mark Twain, and William Faulkner, who at one time was a "real passion" in his life. From time to time he rereads his philosophical mentor, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who has become for de Kooning a kind of "security blanket." De Kooning's self-effacing erudition won him respect from other first-generation Abstract Expressionists in the 1940s and '50s. His range of interests and ability to articulate his ideas distinguished him from Jackson Pollock, for example, who was once described by a fellow painter, John Ferren, as the ultimate "Ugh artist."
The de Kooning-Pollock relationship is affectionately summarized in de Kooning's reminiscence: "He was it. A couple times he told me, 'You know more, but I feel more.' I was jealous of himhis talent. But he was a remarkable person. He'd do things that were so terrific." In reference to the battle for abstract art fought by New York artists shortly after World War II, de Kooning's famous comment, "Jackson Pollock broke the ice," expressed the abrupt, intense, and irrevocable nature of Pollock's achievement. However, considering his own work during the last thirty years, de Kooning seems only to have paused momentarily, recognized Pollock's apocalyptic breakthrough, and then resumed working in his independent, yet inclusive way. He has sworn allegiance to neither figural imagery nor abstraction, but has extended and at times fused both modes.
Meyer Schapiro likens de Kooning to a mathematician, working in a highly intuitive way with very strong personal reactions. Rejecting a "proof," or style, he poses a new problem and starts all over again. Yet, Schapiro adds, "de Kooning has the simplicity of a craftsman. He respects skill. For that reason, he's always admired commercial artists, those who are not original." This attitude is related to de Kooning's ongoing desire to master totally whatever medium he works in: oil, enamel, pencil, pastel, charcoal, and, between 1969 and 1974, clay, which he modeled into pieces that were subsequently cast in bronze or polyester resin. No other Abstract Expressionist has wrestled so frequently and strenuously with so many distinct painting and drawing techniques. De Kooning has sometimes taken them on all at onceas in the figure/landscapes of the late 1960snot simply to show off his skills, but to amplify the content of his art. And its meaning, its nonformal content, is as extensive as his techniques: ambivalent, somber, frightening, yet at other times joyous, playful, witty, ribald.
De Kooning's influence, direct and indirect, has been enormous. Major art of the last forty years cannot be even superficially surveyed without focusing on his monumental series. Woman I is as much a symbol of mid-twentieth-century America as Edouard Manet's Olympia was a scandalous Venus in 1865 Paris or Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase a puzzle hopelessly gone to pieces at the 1913 Armory Show. But de Kooning's other Women, as well as his black and white abstractions, his "abstract landscapes" of 1957-63, and his recent sensual abstractions casually yet specifically reflecting the East Hampton environment also qualify as conspicuous landmarks in the history of twentieth-century art. To be sure, not every work in these series is a masterpiece, but de Kooning's ability to achieve high quality is prodigious. As artists of his generation had to contend with the promethean Picasso, today's artists have to work their way around de Kooning, or consciously turn their backs on him and walk away. Avowing de Kooning as a paradigm of freedom and dedication for all contemporary artists, regardless of personal style or cause, Jim Dine may say it best: "I love de Kooning most as a fact that he exists for all of us, as our most profound painter, I think."