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Famous Painters: Willem de Kooning

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Famous artist Willem de Kooning painting in his studio in in 1967.

Willem de Kooning painting in his studio in Easthampton, Long Island, New York, in 1967.

Photo by Ben Van Meerondonk/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The painter Willem de Kooning was born in Rotterdam in the Netherlands on 24 August 1904, and died in Long Island, New York, on 19 March 1997. De Kooning was apprenticed to a commercial art and decorating firm when he was 12, and attended evening classes at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques for eight years. He emigrated to the USA in 1926 and began painting full time in 1936.

De Kooning's painting style was Abstract Expressionism. He had his first solo exhibition at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York in 1948, with a body of work in black-and-white enamel paint. (He started using enamel paint as he couldn't afford artist's pigments.) By the 1950s he was recognized as one of the leaders of Abstract Expressionism, though some purists of the style thought his paintings (such as his Woman series) included include too much of the human form.

His paintings contain many layers, elements overlapped and hidden as he reworked and reworked a painting. Changes are allowed to show. He drew on his canvases in charcoal extensively, for the initial composition and while painting. His brushwork is gestural, expressive, wild, with a sense of energy behind the strokes. The final paintings look quickly done, but weren't.

De Kooning's artistic output spanned nearly seven decades, and included paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints. His final paintings were created in the late 1980s. His most famous paintings are Pink Angels (c. 1945), Excavation (1950), and his third Woman series (1950–53) done in a more painterly style and improvisational approach. In the 1940s he worked simultaneously in abstract and representational styles. His breakthrough came with his black-and-white abstract compositions of 1948–49. In the mid-1950s he painted the urban abstractions, returning to figuration in the 1960s, then to the large gestural abstractions in the 1970s. In 1980s, de Kooning changed to working on smooth surfaces, glazing with bright, transparent colors over fragments of gestural drawings.

• Works by De Kooning in MoMA in New York and Tate Modern in London.
MoMa 2011 De Kooning Exhibition website

See Also:
Artist's Quotes: Willem de Kooning
Review: Willem De Kooning Biography

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