In 1926, Willem de Kooning, a penniless, 22-year-old commercial artist from the Netherlands, stowed away on a freighter bound for America. He had no papers and spoke no English. After his ship docked in Newport News, Virginia, he made his way north with some Dutch friends toward New York City. At first he found his new world disappointing. “What I saw was a sort of Holland,” he recalled in the 1960s. “Lowlands. What the hell did I want to go to America for?” A few days later, however, as de Kooning passed through a ferry and train terminal in Hoboken, New Jersey, he noticed a man at a counter pouring coffee for commuters by sloshing it into a line of cups. “He just poured fast to fill it up, no matter what spilled out, and I said, ‘Boy, that’s America.’”
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That was de Kooning, too. Of the painters who emerged in New York during the late 1940s and early ’50s—Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, among them—de Kooning, who died in 1997, remains the most difficult to capture: He is too vital, restless, jazzy, rude and unpredictable to fit into any one particular cup. He crossed many of art’s boundaries, spilling between abstraction and figuration over a period of 50 years—expressing a wide variety of moods—with no concern for the conventions of either conservative or radical taste. According to Irving Sandler, an art historian who has chronicled the development of postwar American art, it was de Kooning who “was able to continue the grand tradition of Western painting and to deflect it in a new direction, creating an avant-garde style that spoke to our time.”
The de Kooning retrospective that opened last month at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)—the first devoted to the full scope of the artist’s seven-decade career—presents a rich, nuanced view of a great American painter. For curator emeritus John Elderfield, who organized the show, the endeavor was unusually personal: the allure of de Kooning’s art helped lead the English-born Elderfield to settle in America. He argues that de Kooning is a painter of originality who invented a new kind of modern pictorial space, one of ambiguity. De Kooning sought to retain both the sculptural contours and “bulging, twisting” planes of traditional figure painting, Elderfield suggests, and the shallow picture plane of modernist art found in the Cubist works of, for example, Picasso and Braque. De Kooning developed several different solutions to this visual issue, becoming an artist who never seemed to stop moving and exploring. He was, in his own enigmatic turn of phrase, a “slipping glimpser.”
During the ’50s de Kooning became the most influential painter of his day. “He was an artist’s artist,” says Richard Koshalek, director of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum, which has one of the largest collections of de Kooning’s work. “He had a great impact on a very wide range of artists.” Brice Marden, a painter who was the subject of a 2006 MoMA retrospective, agrees: “You were brought up on de Kooning. He was the master. He was the teacher.” To many he was also a romantic figure with movie-star looks and an existential swagger, as he drank at the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village with Pollock and moved from love affair to love affair.
Despite his success, de Kooning eventually paid a price for his unwillingness to follow the prevailing trends. His ever-changing art—especially his raucous depiction of women—was increasingly slighted by critics and art historians during his lifetime. It did not, Elderfield suggests, “fit easily with those works thought to maintain the familiar modernist history of an increasingly refined abstraction.” The curators at MoMA itself tended to regard de Kooning after 1950 as a painter in decline, as evidenced by the museum’s own collection, which is considerably stronger in Pollock, Rothko and Newman than in de Kooning.
The quarrel has ended: The current retrospective makes amends. De Kooning’s range now looks like a strength, and his seductive style—“seductive” is the appropriate word, for his brush stroke is full of touch—offers a painterly delight rarely found in the art of our day.
De Kooning grew up near the harbor in tough, working-class Rotterdam. He seldom saw his father, Leendert—his parents divorced when he was a small boy—and his domineering mother, Cornelia, who tended a succession of bars, constantly moved her family in search of less expensive housing. She regularly beat him. Money was short. At the age of 12, he became an apprentice at Gidding and Sons, an elegant firm of artists and craftsmen in the heart of fashionable Rotterdam that specialized in design and decoration. He soon caught the eye of the firm’s owners, who urged him to take classes after work six nights a week at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts.
As a result, de Kooning received a strong grounding in both commercial design and the classical principles of high art. He was precocious; the retrospective at MoMA includes the remarkable Still Life (1917) he made at the Academy at the age of 13. He had to support himself, however. At the age of 16, de Kooning struck out on his own, circulating on the bohemian edges of Rotterdam and picking up jobs here and there. He also began to fantasize about America, then regarded by many in Europe as a mythical land of skyscrapers, movie stars and easy money—but not, perhaps, of art. When he stowed away on the freighter, de Kooning later recalled, he did not think there were any serious artists in America.
In his first years in America, initially in Hoboken, New Jersey, and then in New York, he lived much as he had in Rotterdam, finding work as a commercial artist and occasionally painting in his spare time. He found that there were, in fact, serious artists in America, many of whom also took commercial jobs to survive. He began to spend his time in the coffee shops they favored in Chelsea and Greenwich Village, talking away the night over nickel cups of coffee. Almost everyone he knew was poor; the sale of a painting was rare. In this environment, the abiding commitment of certain artists—above all, the devotion of Arshile Gorky to the tradition of modernist painting—had a pronounced impact on de Kooning.
Gorky, an Armenian-born immigrant, had no patience for those who did not commit themselves unreservedly to art. Nor did he have time for those he deemed provincial or minor in their ambitions, such as those who romanticized rural America or attacked social injustice. (“Proletariat art,” Gorky said, “is poor art for poor people.”) In Gorky’s view if you were serious, you studied the work of modernist masters such as Picasso, Matisse and Miró, and you aspired to equal or better their achieve-ment. Contemporaries described Gorky’s studio on Union Square as a kind of temple to art. “The great excitement of 36 Union Square,” said Ethel Schwabacher, a student and friend of Gorky’s, “lay in the feeling it evoked of work done there, work in progress, day and night, through long years of passionate, disciplined and dedicated effort.”