Willem de Kooning Still Dazzles

A new major retrospective recounts the artist’s seven-decade career and never-ending experimentation

Among the artists who emerged in the 1950s and '60s, Willem de Kooning, shown here in 1953, defied categorization. (Tony Vaccaro / akg-images)
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De Kooning suddenly found himself a star—the first celebrity, arguably, in the modern American art world. The only painter in the early ’50s of comparable or greater stature was Jackson Pollock. But Pollock, then falling into advanced alcoholism, lived mainly in Springs (a hamlet near East Hampton on Long Island) and was rarely seen in Manhattan. The spotlight therefore focused on de Kooning, who became the center of a lively scene. Many found him irresistible, with his Dutch sailor looks, idiosyncratic broken English and charming accent. He loved American slang. He’d call a picture “terrific” or a friend “a hot potato.”

In this hothouse world, de Kooning had many tangled love affairs, as did Elaine. (They separated in the 1950s, but never divorced.) De Kooning’s affair with Joan Ward, a commercial artist, led to the birth, in 1956, of his only child, Lisa, to whom he was always devoted—though he never became much of a day-to-day father. He also had a long affair with Ruth Kligman, who had been Pollock’s girlfriend and who survived the car crash in 1956 that killed Pollock. Kligman was both an aspiring artist who longed to be the muse to an important painter and a sultry young woman who evoked stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren. “She really put lead in my pencil,” de Kooning famously said.

Following the Woman series, de Kooning developed a series of abstractions (the best known is Easter Monday) that capture the gritty, churning feel of life in New York City at mid-century. In the later ’50s, he simplified his brush stroke. Now, long broad swaths of paint began to sweep across the canvas. He was spending increasing amounts of time in Springs, where many of his friends had summer places. The pictures of the late ’50s often allude to the light and color of the countryside while containing, of course, figurative elements. Ruth’s Zowie (1957) has a kind of declarative élan and confidence. (Kligman provided the title when she entered de Kooning’s studio and, seeing the picture, exclaimed “Zowie!”) De Kooning himself never learned to drive a car, but he loved traveling the broad new American highways. In 1959 the art world mobbed the gallery opening of what is sometimes called his highway series: large, boldly stroked landscapes.

De Kooning was never entirely comfortable as a celebrity. He always remained, in part, a poor boy from Rotterdam. (When he was introduced to Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III, who had just bought Woman II, he hemmed and hawed and then blurted out, “You look like a million bucks!”) Like many of his contemporaries, he began drinking heavily. At the peak of his success toward the end of the 1950s, de Kooning was a binge drinker, sometimes disappearing for more than a week at a time.

In the ’50s, many young artists had imitated de Kooning; critics called them “second generation” painters—that is, followers of pioneers like de Kooning. In the ’60s, however, the art world was rapidly changing as Pop and Minimal artists such as Andy Warhol and Donald Judd brought a cool and knowing irony to art that was foreign to de Kooning’s lush sensibility. These young artists did not want to be “second generation,” and they began to dismiss the older painter’s work as too messy, personal, European or, as de Kooning might put it, old hat.

In 1963, as de Kooning approached the age of 60, he left New York City for Springs with Joan Ward and their daughter. His life on Long Island was difficult. He was given to melancholy, and he resented being treated like a painter left behind by history. He still went on periodic benders, which sometimes ended with his admission to Southampton Hospital. But his art continued to develop in extraordinary new ways.

De Kooning immersed himself in the Long Island countryside. He built a large, eccentric studio that he likened to a ship, and he became a familiar figure around Springs, bicycling down the sandy roads. His figurative work of the ’60s was often disturbing; his taste for caricature and the grotesque, apparent in Woman I, was also found in such sexually charged works as The Visit (1966-67), a wet and juicy picture of a grinning frog-woman lying on her back. In his more abstract pictures, the female body and the landscape increasingly seemed to fuse in the loose, watery paint.

De Kooning also began making extraordinarily tactile figurative sculptures: Clamdigger (1972) seemed pulled from the primordial ooze. The paintings that followed, such as ...Whose Name was Writ in Water (1975), were no less tactile but did not have the same muddiness. Ecstatic eruptions of water, light, reflection, paint and bodily sensation—perhaps a reflection, in part, of de Kooning’s passion for the last great love of his life, Emilie Kilgore—the paintings look like nothing else in American art. And yet, in the late ’70s, de Kooning abruptly, and typically, ended the series. The pictures, he said, were coming too easily.

It was also in the late ’70s that de Kooning first began exhibiting signs of dementia. His wife, Elaine, who came back into his life at this time, began to monitor him carefully. Increasingly, as the ’80s wore on, he would depend on assistants to move his canvases and lay out his paints. Some critics have disparaged the increasingly spare paintings of this period. Elderfield, however, treats the late style with respect. In the best of the late works, de Kooning seems to be following his hand, the inimitable brush stroke freed of any burden and yet lively as ever. “Then there is a time in life,” he said in 1960, as he wearied of New York City, “when you just take a walk: And you walk in your own landscape.”

De Kooning died on March 19, 1997, at his Long Island studio, at the age of 92. He traveled an enormous distance during his long life, moving between Europe and America, old master and modernist, city and country. De Kooning’s art, said the painter Robert Dash, “always seems to be saying goodbye.” De Kooning himself liked to say, “You have to change to stay the same.”


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