Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
“Probably the most libidinal painter America has ever had,” according art critic Robert Hughes, looking at de Kooning’s paintings, the way he immersed himself in the female form in his famous ‘Women’ series from the 50s, and the way the body — admittedly in pieces, but the sensual body nonetheless — returns, over and over again, we can’t help but agree with Hughes.
Born in Rotterdam, Netherlands, de Kooning emigrated illegally to the United States in 1926. Along with Jackson Pollack, he became a leading member of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. De Kooning developed a distinctive, hallmark style, later termed action painting. Peter Schjeldahl described the technique as “an arm motion that unclenched one of the most concentratedly intelligent marks ever seen. The stroke could deliver at once line, shape, color, contour, depth, touch, rhythm, and, crucially, scale… you grasp the muscular eloquence, both fierce and delicate, of that visible exertion, which communicates between the artist’s body and your own… it’s as if he were holding you by the hand as all hell breaks loose around you.”
De Kooning’s paintings contain fragments of bodies that seem to emerge from the thickly applied paint, writhing against one another in an ever-increasing tempo — here an elbow, there a thigh, but nothing explicit, always just suggestions. They also contain fragments of pop culture. Film, advertisements, and iconographic images all find their way into his paintings.
In the 1980s, de Kooning began to suffer from the ravages of Alzheimers, but continued to paint for nearly a decade as his mind gradually descended into senility. Many of the paintings from this late period have stymied critics, for they are both evolutionary extensions of his previous work and something new. Although difficult to understand, the late paintings contain an undiminished power and excellence. Schjeldahl once again: “I propose that late de Kooning is the degree zero of painting, attained not through simplification but, fully complex, through being emptied of anything not identical with its execution. This work henceforth defines the verb ‘to paint’.