Willem de kooning

Published 12 Jun 2017

Willem de Kooning is a renowned American painter though born in Dutch. He started his work in a firm of commercial artists and decorators in 1916 during which he was also attending evening classes at Rotterdam academy of fine arts and techniques. He lived at the time of Abstract Expressionism (an American art movement) during World War II and so his painting style was referred to as action painting or Abstract Expressionism. This was a time when most European schools used anti figurative aesthetics.

Most of Willem’s paintings were more focused on women figures. His paintings caused a lot of sensations unlike his colleagues’ who painted abstractly with blatant techniques and imagery. After resigning from the Works Progress Administration where he had worked for two years and won a Logan medal of arts, he dedicated his time to creative work as means of supporting himself. He was able to work for the easel painting and mural divisions. He majored on the male figures with the inclusion of colored abstractions.

From the name of this movement, most of the paintings were more of rebellion and anarchy. During the period between 1930 and 1950, the US government was offering sponsorship for artists and Willem was assigned the job of painting murals. In his work he combined a lot of geometrics and figurative. He was quoted saying ‘its quiet absurd to make a human image using a paint when you think about it but rather more absurd if you don’t do it’.
This quote greatly contradicts his works which were more based on images of human beings. For instance, Two Men Standing, Women 1, Women And Bicycle, Two Women In The Country, among others. He painted women in the early times of the 1940 and most of this pictures expressed vulgarity which were derived from the objects in the studio where he frequently worked. He would say that art never makes him happy and yet he spent most the years between 1950 and 1955 in painting women figures (Lieber, E, 2000).

Another statement that clearly depicts this contradiction with his works was’ spiritually am wherever my spirit allows me to be…’, ‘I don’t paint to live but I live to paint.’ Even though his statement expressed dissatisfaction with art work, his action in continuing with it contradicted that. In his figures, he drew women with exaggerated features such as protruding breasts, large hips, using the pencil and pastel drawings.Even though he claims that the work of artists is not to put order on the chaotic nature but rather to put order in them, he occasionally produced some abstract work.

Most of his works that were purely abstractions included a Door to the River, Bolton Landing, which was more related to the landscape than to human figures. This deviation in his works is actually attributed to the influence of his early works in women paintings with lots of colorations evident in the landscape. He later turned to sculpture and made a number of works which were later casts in bronze.

The greatest mark of his works is aligned to ambiguity in the complex figures. The overlap in the figures of the background caused them to appear as if they are in the foreground then he would overlap them with dripping lines thus making the whole area appear in the background. Such ambiguities in drawing do not at all express order as he claims to be focused on (Lieber, E, 2000).

Though he frequently changed his styles in painting he remained more abstract. As he progressed in his works, he increased the color use and the dripping lines. The overall paintings of de Kooning numbered to seventy six. He happened to be so much occupied with the recurring body features such as the eyes, the ears, and the breast portraying a lot of mixture of the contemporary styles and imagery with the tradition of nudity. His paintings are majored on one specific part of the image thus driving the attention of the viewer to the focused part.

His period of art work is characterized by oscillations between the less abstract works of human representation to the abstract representations of the land cape, between a relative confusion and a relative calm. He is renowned for his black and white painting which was as a result of his extreme poverty that hindered him from buying artists’ pigment. Most of his series of large abstractions were painted with black and white household enamels.

Of these works are: Light in August, Black Friday which were black and thus painted white, whereas Zurich and Mailbox which were white and thus painted black. He would seldom return to realistic arts especially the portrait of his wife Elaine which he painted three years after they met. Though he greatly pioneered the era of abstract expressionism, his works caused a lot of sensation unlike his colleagues whose were mostly of abstractions with no realities. De Kooning used his ability for realistic drawing to make paintings for commercial and advertisement purposes.

In his painting of the 1975’s, he ventured again into abstraction with lots of vigor and he was able to produce a mass of paintings with no titles. Most of his paintings in this era were multicolored with the de Kooning’s curly lines with lots of preference to light colors. During this period, he chose the larger quadrangular canvass as his main formatting standard. The years between 1975 and 1977 were the happiest years and he felt like he could not miss painting though earlier he had said that painting doesn’t make him happier or pure.

The last years of his painting were marked by increasing productivity and though he frequently changed his styles he still remained abstract in his drawings. His drinking habit became a great threat to the continuation of his paintings as he became very forgetful and when he was taken for diagnosis, he was found with the Alzheimer disease.

His last paintings became more and more controversial because they were more or less clean, sparse and slightly graphic. Some of his late paintings lacked mastery which was quiet evident in his earlier works.


  • Lieber, E. (2000). Willem de Kooning: Reflections in the Studio. Harry N. Abrams.
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