|William de Kooning|
In 1926 de Kooning entered the United States as a stowaway on a British freighter, the SS Shelly, to Newport, Virginia. He then went by ship to Boston, and took a train from Boston to Rhode Island, and eventually settled in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he supported himself as a house painter. In 1927 he moved to a studio in Manhattan and came under the influence of the artist, connoisseur, and art critic John D. Graham and the painter Arshile Gorky. Gorky became one of de Kooning's closest friends.
From about 1928 de Kooning began to paint still life and figure compositions reflecting School of Paris and Mexican influences. By the early 1930s he was exploring abstraction, using biomorphic shapes and simple geometric compositions, an opposition of disparate formal elements that prevails in his work throughout his career. These early works have strong affinities with those of his friends Graham and Gorky and reflect the impact on these young artists of Pablo Picasso and the Surrealist Joan Miró, both of whom achieved powerfully expressive compositions through biomorphic forms.
In October 1935 de Kooning began to work on the WPA (Works Progress Administration) Federal Art Project. He was employed by this work-relief program until July 1937, when he resigned because of his alien status. This period of about two years provided the artist, who had been supporting himself during the early Depression by commercial jobs, with his first opportunity to devote full time to creative work. He worked on both the easel-painting and mural divisions of the project (the several murals he designed were never executed).
In 1938 de Kooning met Elaine Marie Fried, later known as Elaine de Kooning, whom he married in 1943. She also became a significant artist. During the 1940s and thereafter he became increasingly identified with the Abstract Expressionist movement and was recognized as one of its leaders in the mid-1950s. He had his first one-man show, which consisted of his black-and-white enamel compositions, at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York in 1948 and taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1948 and at the Yale School of Art in 1950/51.
De Kooning had painted women regularly in the early 1940s and again from 1947 to 1949. The biomorphic shapes of his early abstractions can be interpreted as female symbols. But it was not until 1950 that he began to explore the subject of women exclusively. In the summer of that year he began Woman I (located at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City), which went through innumerable metamorphoses before it was finished in 1952.
During this period he also created other paintings of women. These works were shown at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1953 and caused a sensation, chiefly because they were figurative when most of his fellow Abstract Expressionists were painting abstractly and because of their blatant technique and imagery. The savagely applied pigment and the use of colors that seem vomited on his canvas combine to reveal a woman all too congruent with some of modern man's most widely held sexual fears. The toothy snarls, overripe, pendulous breasts, vacuous eyes, and blasted extremities imaged the darkest Freudian insights. He also had many paintings that seemed to hearken back to early Mesopotamian / Akkadian works, with the large, almost "all-seeing" eyes.
About 1963, the year he moved permanently to East Hampton, Long Island, de Kooning returned to depicting women in such paintings as Pastorale and Clam Diggers. He re-explored the theme in the mid-1960s in paintings that were as controversial as his earlier women. In these works, which have been read as satiric attacks on the female anatomy, de Kooning painted with a flamboyant lubricity in keeping with the uninhibited subject matter. His later works, such as Whose Name Was Writ in Water and Untitled III, are lyrical, lush, and shimmering with light and reflections on water. He turned more and more during his late years to the production of clay sculpture.
In the 1980s de Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and a court declared him unfit to manage his estate, which was turned over to conservators. As the style of his later works began to take on an abrupt change, his vintage works drew increasing profits; at Sotheby's auctions Pink Lady (1944) sold for US$3.6 million in 1987 and Interchange (1955) brought $20.6 million in 1989. His wife, the former Elaine Fried, died from lung cancer, aged 70, in 1989.
There is much debate over the relevance and significance of his later paintings, which became clean, sparse, and almost graphic, while alluding to the biomorphic lines of his early works. Some say his mental condition and attempts to recover from a life of alcoholism had rendered him unable to carry out the mastery indicated in his early works, while others see these late works as prophesizing the clean, surface-oriented painters of the 1990s and 21st century - and having a direct correlation to contemporary painters such as Brice Marden. Still others who knew de Kooning personally claim that his late paintings were being taken away and sold before he was able to finish them.