De Kooning, 20th century master, dies

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The Independent Online
Willem de Kooning, one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, has died at the age of 92, his last years coloured by Alzheimer's disease and battles in the courts over his work.

The Dutch-born painter died yesterday in his East Hampton studio near New York, which he had designed himself in the Sixties and worked in ever since. He had been one of the most dominant figures of post-war New York abstract expressionism - the movement that stresses the depiction of emotion through shapes and colours - although some art critics were convinced that in his last years assistants and family members may have had input to his work.

Last night, Karen Wright, editor of Modern Painters magazine said: "It may be debatable how much input he had into his paintings in very recent years. But there can be no argument that he was extremely influential in the whole course of 20th-century art. He was an utterly seminal figure."

De Kooning's style ranged from abstracts overwhelmingly executed in primary colours, to the figurative "Woman" series of paintings of the Fifties, inspired by forms from iconography and girlie magazines (pre- figuring pop art), which caused resentment among fellow artists because of his temporary abandonment of pure abstraction. The "Woman" series was described by the leading art critic in the United States, Robert Hughes, as "the most memorable images of sexual insecurity in American culture".

De Kooning painted well into his eighties, despite being diagnosed in 1988 as suffering from Alzheimer's disease which led the New York Supreme Court to declare that he was incapable of looking after his own affairs.

In recent years, his works have commanded huge prices in the auction houses. His 1955 masterpiece Interchange, fetched $20.6m (pounds 12.9) in 1989. And only last year his 1949 painting Woman fetched pounds 9.47m, the highest price for a contemporary work since the art market crashed in 1990.

The painter was born in Rotterdam in 1904. His father was a wine distributor, his mother a barmaid. When he was five, his parents divorced. His father was awarded legal custody but his mother took him away by force - a fact that critics made much of in analysing his art years later. He went on to study art at Rotterdam Academy before stowing away on a ship to the United States where he earned money as a house painter before being acclaimed as an artist of international repute with his first one-man show at 44. He did not become a US citizen until 1961.

His aphorisms have become well known. He declared in a much quoted paper "What Abstract Art Means To Me" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1951: "Painting is a way of living today, a style of living, so to speak... that is where the form of it lies." But his later paeans to art were actually more memorable. "Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented"; "I don't paint to live, I live to paint"; and "I'd like to get all the colours in the world into one painting".

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