Obituary: Willem de Kooning

Bryan Robertson
Friday 21 March 1997 00:02 GMT

The death of Willem de Kooning at the great age of 92, after suffering from the deprivations of Alzheimer's disease for more than a decade, severs our last link with that heroic and wholly innovative era of painting in the United States which flourished for a quarter of a century from the mid-1940s onward, loosely and variably bound by the principles of abstract expressionism.

This is not to say that distinguished and challenging painting in one mode or another has not appeared in the US from time to time since that period. But 50 years ago, with his friends and near contemporaries Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman, de Kooning radically modified our idea of art by transforming our expectations of painting, and thus changed forever our habitual sense of what a painting should look like - a climactic moment, universally experienced, in the evolution of art in this century, comparable to the arrival of cubism in Paris 40 years earlier.

The impact of abstract expressionism on artists and the art public in Europe in the late Fifties and Sixties was dramatic and decisive. Nobody around at the time can forget the sheer excitement, the visual panache, of those first big shows in London at the Whitechapel Gallery of Pollock, Kline, Rothko, Mark Tobey - a founding figure for the new language but too often overlooked today - Philip Guston and others from 1958 on, together with "The New American Painting" show at the Tate. Of all these artists, Pollock probably made the most radical contribution to art since Picasso because of his entirely new and original approach to the very act of painting which was indivisible from the nature of his imagery. Nobody had thrown, splattered or poured, dripped or dribbled paint on to a canvas laid flat on the floor before and if this action initially aroused derision, the fine-spun delicacy and radiance, the sheer verve, of the resultant images quickly converted the spectator.

But Pollock died tragically young and his comparatively short lifespan of work has to be seen as a lyrical outpouring of exceptional force and intensity. And his art, in particular, like the more extended flow of equally abstract imagery from the longer-lived Rothko, appeared to close down the possibilities for painting rather than extend them, to exist as an impregnably grand and sumptuous finality rather than extending a bridge for other artists to explore and cross. Some kinds of art leave everything open for others to follow, other kinds close everything off. It is a fundamental difference between the open art of Robert Rauschenberg and the closed discretions of Jasper Johns.

It was left to de Kooning to give an almost physical reassurance and an imaginative sense of a possible future to younger painters in Europe and American in the late Fifties, when many artists were seeking out ways of sustaining the validity of figurative painting at a time when abstract imagery of all kinds seemed to be so strongly in the ascendant. Between the polarities of Dubuffet's sophisticated infantilism and de Stael's late, effulgent Fauve manner, figurative painting was debilitated and lost, lacking in credibility. Bacon in England was another impossible act to follow.

De Kooning not only restored credibility to figurative art but gave it a fresh currency. In this he was not quite alone: Guston also gave hope to many figurative painters through the series of big semi-abstract still life paintings and interiors of c1959-62. But de Kooning swept the boards through the sheer force of the new synthesis at white heat that he created between the subject of the painting - which Pollock had surmounted or lost - and the anarchic bravura of its execution.

Reluctant at first to believe that de Kooning was not too strongly rooted in the 19th century - because my perceived role at the Whitechapel in the Fifties and Sixties was to try to help the English public, visually backward at the time, to see and understand the different phases of abstract art from Malevich and Mondrian on - I was totally converted by his 1959 show in New York at the Sidney Janis Gallery of blazing, light-drenched landscape canvases, based on the fields and dunes around the coastline of the Hamptons where de Kooning had acquired a studio. This was landscape seen, felt, experienced in a new way, in vehemently focussed close-up so that sea, sky and vegetation make a new, taut drama, expressed through broadly slashed brushstrokes and thickly gleaming pigment.

I was still too young to see that the earlier and magnificently frenetic and repellent paintings of women, which seemed excessively grotesque, like bashed dolls, were not really paintings of women so much as what happens to women: what men do to women and what women do to themselves in the hysteria of the pop performance world, fashion, eros and self-travesty, all plainly visible in Manhattan.

De Kooning's most perfectly beautiful paintings, perhaps, came even earlier, in the late Forties when he had been concerned with the city as an experience as well as with the human figure, with which he often had odd difficulties, and made some kind of fusion between the two themes, resulting in a sequence of miraculously "occupied" canvases, free of the human figure but alert, bristling with its presence. Excavation, 1950 (Art Institute of Chicago), Asheville, 1949 (The Phillips Collection, Washington), Attic, 1949 (Metropolitan Museum of Art), Painting, 1948 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Light in August, 1946 (Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art) are among the most poetically charged and original paintings of the century, almost abstract but alive with human traceries. There is no doubt in my mind that de Kooning's art as a whole will still be as highly regarded at the end of the next century as it is today, although I do not see much merit in his sculpture. Time will tell.

A man of great charm, humour, zest for life and total privacy, very much the artist as gregarious loner, de Kooning was born in 1904 in Rotterdam to parents who divorced when he was five; his custody was given to the father, but his mother, who owned a bar, successfully appealed against the decision and brought him up. Apprenticed to a commercial art firm, the young de Kooning attended night classes at the Rotterdam Academy, won awards, began to travel, and supported himself by sign- painting, cartoons, and designing window displays. He emigrated to the United States in 1926, illegally, planning to work as a commercial artist.

He lived in great poverty throughout the later Twenties and Thirties, gradually establishing contact with the art of his time. His early friendships with fellow artists Stuart Davis and Arshile Gorky were extremely important, and there are many shared preoccupations with line, for a time, in the paintings of de Kooning and Gorky. Edwin Denby, the legendary dance critic, and Harold Rosenberg were also among his friends in the Thirties. Tom Hess, the critic and dashing associate editor on Art News, was a later friend and exponent.

But it was Franz Kline, blessed with a charm, grace, intelligence and wit which more than matched de Kooning's, who became his closest friend from c1939 on. Following Gorky's suicide in 1948, Kline and de Kooning drew even closer together, united by wit, a passion for girls and a love of drink. All this was tough going for visitors: Kline's favourite meeting time in his favourite bar being 11pm, after his late- starting working day was over. By then, de Kooning had married Elaine Fried, a New York painter of considerable style and intelligence who devoted herself to de Kooning's success and wellbeing. But in 1956, Kline and de Kooning were exchanging girlfriends turn and turn about with such alternating regularity that it seemed almost like a form of homosexuality by proxy.

Backed by all his fellow artists, including Duchamp, de Kooning was achieving some success by the early Fifties, though hardly riches. His first series of "Women", exhibited in 1953, brought him notoriety, but also a broader reputation. In 1963, he moved out of New York City to a permanent new home and studio at the Springs, in the Hamptons, not far from the studios of his friends Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. De Kooning's studio in its heyday seemed almost like the crowded dock of an affluent boat-builder.

There is no doubt that the large Soutine retrospective held at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1950 had as cathartic an effect on de Kooning's vision as Picasso and Gorky had in earlier years. De Kooning gave a new and personal dimension to expressionism and to the intensely "inhabited" or psychologically intensified view of landscape and the figure painting which Soutine, one of the greatest figures in the art of the 20th century, established and developed. But emigre that he was, with a Northern sense of colour and ironic view of life perhaps inherited from his homeland, de Kooning brought a New World brash sensitivity to bear on his personal development from Picasso and Soutine, and perfected a richly hectic sense of colour that does a great deal to accelerate and to assuage the rush to our nerve-endings that the finest painting by de Kooning always detonates.

His peak was reached by 1980, and by then he had created a magisterial body of work, sensuous, always questing and probing, always saying something however obliquely about the human condition, the business of being alive, all set out in an exemplary exhibition two years ago at the Tate Gallery, memorably hung by Nicholas Serota and David Sylvester, one of de Kooning's earliest and best champions in Europe.

Willem de Kooning, artist; born Rotterdam 24 April 1904; married 1943 Elaine Fried (died 1989; one daughter); died East Hampton, New York 19 March 1997.

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