Fame, wealth, genius: Willem de Kooning appeared to have it all. But his story is as much a tragedy as a triumph of American art Quite soon after their marriage, Elaine began to go to bed with `everyone'; and so did Bill Rauschenberg asked for a drawing he would erase. Nice old Bill gave him a good one
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ONLY A tough woman could run a Rotterdam sailors' bar in the years before the First World War, and everything we know about Cornelia de Kooning suggests that she had not only a commanding but a violent personality. Not that there is abundant information about Cornelia. Her son Willem de Kooning spoke of her only rarely, usually to his wife Elaine or, late at night, to one of his drinking partners. Those who have known him say that Willem, famous as a tough guy, the leader of Abstract Expres-sionist art, reputedly the best painter in the world, was simply terrified of his mother. One painter friend says, "You don't have to be a certified Freudian to suspect that that was the formative relationship in his life. One would describe Cornelia as a child abuser . . . Bill's life was darkly shadowed by his early experiences with that awful mother." Cornelia fought her way through life, won most of her battles, and died in her early nineties. Willem de Kooning is also long-lived. On 24 April this year he will be 91. But his mind is in ruins. Since about the early 1980s he has suffered from the ghastly effects of Alzheimer's Disease. If de Kooning is indeed the greatest living painter - and it is interesting to ask who else would qualify for such a title - he is none the less an artist whose creative days are far in the past. Furthermore, there is doubt whether his later paintings and sculptures are the work of his own hand. It is alleged that they have been produced by studio assistants or more distant forgers. The vast de Kooning estate, worth many millions of dollars, is subject to litigation. Mean-while, uncomprehending, the former painter is nursed in his Long Island home - while the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Tate Gallery in London mount a retrospective to claim that he was a crucial 20th-century artist, one whose vision and mastery should have been compared with Rubens and Titian.

WHEN THE show opens at the Tate on 16 February we will be able to test these assertions. Obviously it's important to look at his art and form a rational estimate of its qualities. We should also see de Kooning as a cultural phenomenon. Some think he was at the centre of the tragedy, not the triumph, of American art. I agree that when we look at de Kooning's life we see many of the sort of things that have gone wrong with art in general. It's a sad story, one of poverty and then of unimaginable, useless riches; of comradeship followed by bitter rivalries; of success, fame, sex, alcoholism; and finally of the strange nothingness of paintings done in senility by a man whose spirit, far from responding to the old masters, was utterly broken.

A waterfront boy, Willem de Kooning guessed from childhood that his destiny lay beyond the ocean. To get away from his mother was imaginable in Rotterdam, an emigration port. He saw how boats came from further up the Rhine carrying the peasantry of Central Europe, homeless, with perhaps a few guilders. On the quays they waited for a passage to America. For de Kooning too, as he grew up in the early 1920s, America was the goal. Yet of course he was not to be a peasant emigrant. He didn't hope for a relative to meet him, then a bit of land to farm. Young de Kooning wanted money in a city, an auto-mobile and long-legged girls.

His native Rotterdam was also a commercial city. It had up-to-date manufacturing. De Kooning's adol-escence, when he went to the Rotterdam Academy, was fired by the sight of the Netherlands' first modern shop windows. His admirers say that the academy gave him "rigorous" training in the classical techniques of drawing and painting. This is unbelievable. There is no later evidence that he possessed such traditional skills. Willem's academy education was in commercial art. He had an interest in fine art, but so have many people. The desire to really be an artist and live an artist's life did not come to him until about 1935, when he was in his early thirties.

De Kooning is the only important modern painter to have joined the fine-art mainstream from a background in commercial art. And this working background was not of a superior kind. Mostly it was house-painting, designing shop facades, finishing off interiors of warehouses. He could have been aware of older Dutchmen such as Piet Mondrian and Gerrit Rietveld, both intent on a holy combination of Modernist art and architecture. This was not for de Kooning. He did have one ambition. It was to draw illustrations of the sort that he had seen in American magazines, but "I had no talent for it".

ONE DAY in 1926 he left the Netherlands for ever. A sailor he knew from Cornelia's bar got him a job in the engine-room of a ship bound for the United States. In Virginia, he jumped ship, signed on a coaler going to Boston ("The only English word I knew was `Yes' "), then worked his way down the coast to Rhode Island, the New York waterfront and finally a home in a hostel for Dutch seamen in Hoboken, New Jersey. And there he remained, picking up more of the language, becoming "Bill" rather than Willem, and working as a housepainter. He could get $10 a day. That wasn't bad, and nobody checked out that he had no proper papers.

Now begins the most obscure, because undocumented, part of de Kooning's life. The reason why there is so little to relate about his next 10 years is that his American existence was so ordinary. He was an immigrant labourer, like thousands of others. There was work enough. He still dreamt - vaguely - of riches, looked for girlfriends, enjoyed movies, and that was about all. There must have been an undercurrent of feeling that would lead him towards art, but at that time he felt no drive that would end inself-expression. He was just Bill de Kooning.

The six or seven canvases that we know from his first decade in America are not impressive. They are not included in the Tate retrospective. Yet there is something important about their lack of sophistication. We could call it the honesty of ineptitude. Here was a poor Dutchman in America, the new country where a man could make of himself what he willed. And here was a new land in which anyone could be an artist and almost by definition would be a modern artist. America taught de Kooning there were no firm rules for art. It wasn't necessary to possess craft secrets or perfect draughtsmanship. If you felt good with your painting and your friends liked it too, that was probably enough.

De Kooning has been lucky and happy with his friends: this goes with his guileless and pleasant nature. His best early comrades showed him that there was something analogous between America and modern art. Both the country and the avocation were welcoming. Jump ship, be yourself and you could do it: this was as true of painting as of life. The people who confirmed this attitude were also immigrants. By 1930 de Kooning had become a friend of John Graham, whose adopted name did not always conceal his Russian background. Soon afterwards he met the Arm-enian Arshile Gorky, a painter who had also taken a fresh name, in his case rather grandiose. Between them, these two gave Bill de Kooning his new identity as a painter.

Graham had lived in Paris, had encountered Picasso, read books and knew all the new theories. De Kooning, not himself an intellectual, sat in Greenwich Village coffee- houses and listened with fascination while Graham spoke of Freud, the unconscious, Surrealism, the coming revolution of the mind, painting and personal liberty. The mixture of such notions gave a heady impetus to de Kooning's growing feeling that he could make individual and unique art. If he could only paint his own personality, de Kooning reasoned, then authenticity would surely follow.

Paradoxically, however, his new individual painting was almost identical to Gorky's. There was love between these two lonely men, and their art quickly came to share a style and a set of themes. The manner was pseudo-naive and awkward, as though boys hadsuddenly been required to address the adult world. Bits of the pictures were hopelessly unfinished. Space was indeterminate, colour sweet but pungent. De Kooning picked up from Gorky's famous The Artist and his Mother (1926-29), a picture copied from a family photograph that is the icon of the American immigrant experience. The Dutchman tried a similar picture of Cornelia, but this canvas was either abandoned or destroyed. De Kooning was more successful with a drawing called Self-Portrait with an Imaginary Brother (c 1938), and then with the equally touching painting Two Men Standing (c 1938; which opens the Tate exhibition), surely an allegory of the life he had come to share with Gorky.

At the time of this painting, around 1938, Bill de Kooning met his wife, Elaine - who is somewhat neglected in the Tate Gallery catalogue (and also in all the copious recent literature on women artists). Elaine Fried was a painter, half-German, half-Irish, tall, slender, clever, red-haired - and all the rest of it. As was to prove her undoing, she drank quite as much as the macho boys of the emerging Abstract Expressionist movement. Her thirst went beyond the bottle, people said then. She wanted riches and fame for the new American painting, above all for her husband Bill. And she had access to success, with contacts beyond the bohemian scene. She even reviewed ballet for the New York Times, even - to the amazement of the Greenwich Village artists - played tennis. Tennis! Who on earth was this girl? Not a bad painter, it had to be admitted, and also the woman who held the keys to a gate between the world of cold-water apartments on 23rd Street and the glamour of acceptance in uptown Manhattan.

Quite soon after their marriage, Elaine began to go to bed with "everyone", by which she meant the New York art world; and so did Bill. The routine was that they went to their separate studios in the daytime, then met at the Cedar Bar, the artist's hang-out, for an evening of drinking; and then they might go home together, or with a different partner to other places and drunken late-night sexual wrestlings. Each of them had brilliant physical charm and deep lusts that could not be satisfied by the other, Yet this did not mean their union was unhappy. Bill and Elaine were close as confederates. And their infidelities somehow spread a regal charm and influence. The de Koonings were indeed like the royalty of bohemia, except that they had no money at all and little fame beyond their own small quarter of New York.

As some united couples do, they developed their alcoholism in tandem. People blame Elaine for de Kooning's uncontrollable drinking, the subsequent violence and the deleterious effects on his personality and art. Maybe so. In other ways she was a model wife of a familiar and old- fashioned sort. The key to the marriage was that she was convinced her husband was a genius. Elaine was herself an inventive painter and some of her ideas undoubtedly influenced de Kooning. None the less, she had no thoughts of an independent career. Everything in her life was subordinated to the growing glory of Bill.

De Kooning had his first one-man show at the Egan Gallery in 1948, when he was 44. It was a deserved triumph. The black and white paintings, sombre yet angular, were immediately recognised. They were novel but still looked as though they were at the beating heart of New York painting. Provocative but also resonant, they reminded people of Dantesque cityscapes. The largest one was bought by the Museum of Modern Art. This exhibition and its attendant publicity was a turning-point for art in general, not just for the slightly bewildered artist. Now it was clear there was a new and grand movement - the painting we now call Abstract Expressionism - and that de Kooning was at the forefront of its discoveries.

FROM THIS moment Bill was famous and began to earn real money. He also won the respect that was so important to him. The most significant person to be impressed was Jackson Pollock, himself at the height of his career in the late 1940s. Jackson and Bill - both of them drunks, sensitive men who put on a swaggering front, both frightened of their mothers - brawled and bear-wrestled together like adolescent fools; and fools they were in drink, which was often. Today art historians see them as the opposite poles of Abstract Expressionism. Pollock is the classical lyricist, de Kooning the turbulent romantic. Those contrasts were not so clear half a century ago. But certainly they were rivals as well as buddies.

That rivalry was conducted not so much by the artists as by their friends and wives. Pollock was married to Lee Krasner, another painter who buried her own talent while promoting the work of her husband. Lee and Elaine did not get on, to say the least. We find more differences in the critics who championed the two painters. Pollock's friend, the critic Clement Greenberg, was both a true intellectual and a man with a piercing visual sense. De Kooning's mouthpiece (and Elaine's occasional lover), Harold Rosenberg, had no eye at all. He did not look at paintings: he smelt an atmosphere that surrounded an artist. It was his atmospheric piece of writing that sent de Kooning's reputation into a stratosphere of vague bravado.

In 1952 Art News published a Rosenberg piece on recent American art that popularised his term "Action Painting". In a way the phrase was a terrific junction between avant-gardism and Greenwich Village existentialism. The beneficiary of such confusions was de Kooning. By this point the painter's style had matured and he had begun the series of "Woman" paintings that will form the central sequence of the Tate's account of his career. These paintings look so American because they are based on commercial illustration. But their originality is in the brushstroke. By turns slashing, magisterial, tender and tentative, handsome and negligent, Willem de Kooning's application seemed at once the epitome and alphabet of "Action Painting". Here was modern, existential man confronting the void, making the canvas an arena of heroism and despair.

Elaine ran to be photographed in front of the "Woman" paintings to show the world that they could not be her portraits. Privately, she thought that Bill was making subconscious images of Cornelia. It was obvious that there was both anguish and longing inthe pictures. They appeared the more tense because de Kooning frankly declared that he did not know when they were finished. By chance this accorded with existentialist attitudes. It's true that the paintings in the "Woman" series quickly became overloaded, but de Kooning wanted a sumptuous feel to his canvases. So did his collectors. With the "Woman" paintings de Kooning concluded his contract with American wealth. The kid who had jumped ship was on the way to his first million bucks.

At their best the "Woman" paintings are marvellous. So are more abstract pictures in which we often sense an autobiographical impulse. They are blowy, almost nautical, done with a broad brush like a house-painter's, reminiscent of the seas of Massachusetts and the Netherlands, so far away. No one else could have invented this art, but de Kooning's problem was that his pictures were so imitable. The "authentic" personal touch was copied by dozens of followers. Sometimes literally followers. Ardent young men and groupies went to bars to see the god drink. Later at night, they would have seen him fall down among the hoboes.

IN 1957 Elaine left him, exhausted by success, her work done. I must not prejudge the Tate exhibition but suspect that de Kooning's work now started its decline. His grand manner began to look tawdry and affected. A new generation of young, cool artists,also intent on success, took pleasure in mocking him. Robert Rauschenberg presented himself and asked for the gift of a drawing that he would erase as a gesture of disaffiliation. To his credit, nice old Bill deliberately gave him a good one. In a less pleasant symbolic act, the artist Roy Lichtenstein (previously a straight de Kooning imitator) parodied the master's brushstrokes in paintings that blatantly imitated mechanical reproduction.

As for the real brushstrokes - who will tell us when they began to fail? Here is a dilemma of the Tate exhibition. Very properly, it aims to present de Kooning at his best. So it includes no drawings, which might give him away, and none of his ludicrous sculptures - which unsettlingly resemble Lichtenstein parodies, though in a different medium. I think that de Koon-ing was a physical artist whose needs could only be satisfied by pigment, paint that was thin but still palpable. So now we come to the problem of the last paintings, from the last 10 years of his productive life. They are ghostly-thin, spectral. They make me think of art fashioned by a dead person. And I wonder whether this has not been the end of de Kooning's existential quest - the art of the living dead.

Clement Greenberg, impressed in a negative way, said that they were the most dispirited paintings he had ever seen. The line adopted by the Tate is that they are tokens of limpid mastery comparable to late Matisse. Visitors to the retrospective will judge between these views. I believe Green-berg to be right. This is going to be a sad celebration of a living artist. I should try to add a happier note. Elaine and Bill were reconciled and they both got off the drink. But then she died and the Alzheimer's came down - so the bad god of existentialism has won the day, as bloody usual.

! Tate Gallery, SW1 (071-887 8000), 16 Feb to 7 May.