Willem de Kooning ( April 24, 1904 – March 19, 1997) was a Dutch American abstract expressionist artist who was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. In the post-World War II era, de Kooning painted in a style that came to be referred to as Abstract expressionism or Action painting, and was part of a group of artists that came to be known as the New York School. Other painters in this group included Jackson Pollock, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann, Adolph Gottlieb, Anne Ryan, Robert Motherwell, Philip Guston, Clyfford Still, and Richard Pousette-Dart.
Willem de Kooning was born in Rotterdam, in South Holland in the Netherlands, on April 24, 1904. His parents, Leendert de Kooning and Cornelia Nobel, were divorced in 1907, and de Kooning lived first with his father and then with his mother. He left school in 1916 and became an apprentice in a firm of commercial artists. Until 1924 he attended evening classes at the Academie van Beeldende Kunsten en Technische Wetenschappen, the academy of fine arts and applied sciences of Rotterdam, now the Willem de Kooning Academie.
In 1926 de Kooning travelled to the United States as a stowaway on the Shelley, a British freighter bound for Argentina, and on August 15 landed at Newport News, Virginia. He stayed at the Dutch Seamen’s Home in Hoboken and found work as a house-painter. In 1927 he moved to Manhattan, where he had a studio on West Forty-fourth Street. He supported himself with jobs in carpentry, house-painting and commercial art.
De Kooning began painting in his free time; in 1928 he joined the art colony at Woodstock, New York. He also began to meet some of the Modernist artists active in Manhattan. Among them were Stuart Davis, the Armenian Arshile Gorky and the Russian John Graham, who together de Kooning called the “Three Musketeers”. Gorky, who de Kooning first met at the home of Misha Reznikoff, became a close friend and, for at least ten years, an important influence. Balcomb Greene said that “de Kooning virtually worshipped Gorky”; according to Aristodimos Kaldis, “Gorky was de Kooning’s master”. De Kooning’s drawing Self-portrait with Imaginary Brother, from about 1938, may show him with Gorky; the pose of the figures is that of a photograph of Gorky with Peter Busa in about 1936.
De Kooning joined the Artists Union in 1934, and in 1935 was employed in the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, for which he designed a number of murals including some for the Williamsburg Federal Housing Project in Brooklyn. None of them were executed, but a sketch for one was included in New Horizons in American Art at the Museum of Modern Art, his first group show. From 1936, when De Kooning had to leave the Federal Art Project because he did not have American citizenship, he began to work full-time as an artist, earning income from commissions and by giving lessons.
De Kooning’s paintings of the 1930s and early 1940s are abstract still-lifes characterized by geometric or biomorphic shapes and strong colors. They show the influence of his friends Davis, Gorky and Graham, but also of Arp, Joan Miró, Mondrian and Picasso. In the same years de Kooning also painted a series of solitary male figures, either standing or seated, against undefined backgrounds; many of these are unfinished.
Black and white abstractions
By 1946 de Kooning had begun a series of black and white paintings, which he would continue into 1949. During this period he had his first one-man show at the Charles Egan Gallery; it consisted largely of black and white works, although a few has passages of bright color. De Kooning’s black paintings are important to the history of Abstract Expressionism of their densely impacted forms, their mixed media, and their technique.
De Kooning’s well-known Woman series, begun in 1950 the time after meeting his future wife and culminating in Woman VI, owes much to Picasso, not least in the aggressive, penetrative breaking apart of the figure, and the spaces around it. Picasso’s late works show signs that he, in turn, saw images of works by Pollock and de Kooning.:17 De Kooning led the 1950s’ art world to a new level known as the American Abstract Expressionism. “From 1940 to the present, Woman has manifested herself in de Kooning’s paintings and drawings as at once the focus of desire, frustration, inner conflict, pleasure, … and as posing problems of conception and handling as demanding as those of an engineer.” The female figure is an important symbol for de Kooning’s art career and his own life. This painting is considered as a significant work of art for the museum through its historical context about the post World War II history and American feminist movement. Additionally, the medium of this painting makes it different from others of de Kooning’s time.
High sales prices
Some of De Kooning’s paintings have been sold for (near) record prices. In November 2006, David Geffen sold his oil painting Woman III to Steven A. Cohen for $137.5 million, just below the then record $140 million transaction the same people had in the same month for Jackson Pollock’s No. 5, 1948. A month earlier Cohen had already paid Geffen $63.5 million for Police Gazette. In September 2015 David Geffen, again, sold De Kooning’s oil painting “Interchange” for $300 million to hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin. As of 2016 this is the highest price paid for a painting, even when inflation is taken into account, perhaps matched by the sale for “close to $300 million” of Paul Gauguin’s When Will You Marry? in February 2015.