Front Cover – Woman II – 1952 Willem de Kooning



In 1926, the twenty-two-year-old Willem de Kooning arrived in New York from the Netherlands, having travelled as an engine cleaner on a cargo ship without valid docu­ments. At the age of twelve he had attended evening classes for drawing and had later spent many terms studying painting and design at Dutch and Belgian schools of art; but the dream of America was stronger than that of becoming an artist. Nothing came of his designer career, therefore, and de Kooning made a living as a house painter and windowdresser, although he felt at home only in the company of artists.

It was through another immigrant, Arshile Gorky, that he recognized where his true calling lay. De Kooning became famous with his series of "Woman" pictures, painted in the early 1950s. Suddenly, this modest man found himself the spokesman for a new generation of artists for whom the epithet "action painters" had been coined — a term that was applied in particular to the work of de Kooning himself. The artist always insisted that it was really Jackson Pollock who had "broken the ice," but the female figures that de Kooning unleashed upon the world exerted such an attraction that no one in the international art scene could resist them. The nudes De Kooning paints are viewed not with the eyes of an observer, not "from the outside." In this, he was like Turner, who painted a snow­storm or a capsized ship at the mercy of the waves as someone in the midst of the action, whose viewpoint is constantly whirling round with the elements….

This was what gave him the powers of self-renewal into advanced age. The end came in the form of exhaustion. His works from the late 1980s, ornamental labyrinths drawn with the brush, reveal a slow process of leave-taking. The hand continued to paint, but the consciousness gradually withdrew into the darkness of Alzheimer's disease. Creating pictures was the last thing left to him — until finally that gift, too, was extinguished.


Wieland Schmied – Icons of Art