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The Vanguard: Willem de Kooning

on February 13, 2023

Willem de Kooning, a Dutch American artist born in Rotterdam, Netherlands, is celebrated as one of the most influential figures in the world of modern art. Renowned for his dynamic and innovative contributions to Abstract Expressionism, de Kooning's work challenged conventions and reshaped the trajectory of 20th-century art. His journey from the streets of Rotterdam to the pinnacle of the New York art scene is a testament to his enduring legacy.

de Kooning left an indelible mark on the world of modern art. His early life was marked by an innate talent for drawing, and he honed his skills as an apprentice at a commercial art firm. His artistic journey took a significant turn when he emigrated to the United States in 1926, a journey that would ultimately lead him to become a trailblazer in the world of Abstract Expressionism.

Abstract Expressionism artist Willem de Kooning

'Composition' by Willem de Kooning, 1955.

De Kooning's early years in America were marked by the challenges of being an immigrant, with jobs in carpentry and house painting helping to support his artistic endeavors. His passion for art led him to the vibrant art scene of New York City in the 1920s and 1930s, where he encountered fellow modernist artists like Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, and John Graham.

Gorky, in particular, became a close friend and a significant influence on de Kooning's artistic development. This period also saw de Kooning's involvement in government-sponsored art projects during the Great Depression, such as the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project, where he designed murals for the Williamsburg Federal Housing Project in Brooklyn. These experiences laid the foundation for his future artistic explorations.

One of the defining moments in de Kooning's career was his transition from figurative painting to abstraction in the 1940s. His iconic "Woman" series, characterized by frenetic brushwork and bold use of color, challenged traditional portrayals of femininity, and captured the essence of emotional intensity. This series catapulted de Kooning to the forefront of the Abstract Expressionist movement, alongside contemporaries like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline.

De Kooning's relentless experimentation with form, space, and movement resulted in masterpieces like "Black and White," highlighting his ability to push the boundaries of artistic expression. His impact extended beyond his canvases, as he also influenced future generations of artists through his teachings. Though de Kooning's battle with Alzheimer's disease in his later years posed challenges, his artistic legacy remains a testament to the power of creativity, determination, and innovation in the world of modern art.

Early work
During the 1930s and early 1940s, Willem de Kooning embarked on a transformative artistic journey that saw him exploring abstract still-life compositions characterized by a unique blend of geometric and biomorphic shapes, all rendered in striking and bold colors. These works bore the unmistakable imprint of his friendships with fellow artists Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, and John Graham. However, de Kooning's creative spectrum extended far beyond these influences, as he also drew inspiration from the avant-garde stylings of artists like Jean Arp, Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, and Pablo Picasso.

In parallel with these abstract endeavors, de Kooning ventured into the realm of solitary male figures during this period, both standing and seated, set against backgrounds that remained undefined. These enigmatic and often unfinished figures became an intriguing facet of his artistic exploration during this era, hinting at the profound evolution that awaited his work in the coming years.

De Kooning's art from the 1930s and early 1940s not only showcases his mastery of diverse styles and influences but also foreshadows the restless experimentation that would define his career. His willingness to engage with various artistic languages and to push the boundaries of his own creativity is evident in these works, providing a glimpse into the early stages of a remarkable artistic odyssey that would later culminate in his groundbreaking contributions to Abstract Expressionism.

Black and white abstracts
In 1946, Willem de Kooning embarked on a transformative artistic phase that would have a lasting impact on the trajectory of abstract expressionism. During this pivotal period, he initiated a series of black and white paintings that would continue to evolve until 1949. Notably, in 1948, he held his first solo exhibition at the Charles Egan Gallery, a showcase primarily dominated by these striking black and white works, with a few instances of vibrant color accents. De Kooning's black paintings marked a significant milestone in the history of abstract expressionism. These compositions were characterized by densely packed forms, innovative use of mixed media, and a distinctive artistic technique that defied convention. They became a testament to de Kooning's unwavering commitment to pushing artistic boundaries and laid the groundwork for his future contributions to the evolving landscape of abstract art.

Abstract Expressionism Artist Willem de Kooning

'Gansevoort Street' by Willem de Kooning, 1949.

Market reception
Willem de Kooning's artistic legacy continues to thrive in the 21st century, with his paintings commanding record-breaking prices in the art market. In a notable instance in November 2006, David Geffen, the American business magnate, orchestrated a multimillion-dollar art deal when he sold de Kooning's iconic oil painting "Woman III" to hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen for an astounding $137.5 million. This sale took place just below the record-breaking price of $140 million for Jackson Pollock's "No. 5, 1948," which involved the same individuals in the same month. Cohen's enthusiasm for de Kooning's work was evident as he had already purchased another masterpiece, "Police Gazette," for $63.5 million from Geffen a month earlier. In September 2015, de Kooning's "Interchange" shattered records by selling to hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin for approximately $300 million, marking the highest price ever paid for a painting at the time. This remarkable achievement stood as a testament to the enduring appeal and profound impact of de Kooning's art on the contemporary art world, holding its ground until November 2017, when da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi" reached a staggering $450 million at Christie's in New York. Additionally, in November 2016, de Kooning's "Untitled XXV" achieved a remarkable feat by selling for $66.3 million at Christie's in New York, setting a new record price for a de Kooning piece sold at public auction.

Willem de Kooning's ascent to prominence as one of the most influential painters of the 20th century was a testament to his remarkable talent and contribution to the abstract expressionist movement. While it was not until 1948 that he received his first solo exhibition, de Kooning had already garnered a formidable underground reputation. His groundbreaking approach to art, often associated with "action painting," placed him alongside fellow artists like Jackson Pollock at the forefront of the art world. By the end of the 1950s, de Kooning's impact was widely acknowledged, solidifying his position as a leading figure in the art world, influencing generations of artists to come.

de Kooning's ability to blend innovation with emotion and abstraction continues to captivate art enthusiasts and collectors, as evidenced by the astonishing prices his works command in the 21st-century art market.

In 1984, de Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, which gradually dimmed the light of his artistic brilliance. He passed away on March 19, 1997, leaving behind a body of work that continues to captivate and inspire. His paintings, marked by their raw energy and emotional depth, remain a testament to the power of abstract art to evoke visceral reactions and challenge the status quo.

Pete Stein
Founder, Galerie Stein

Galerie Stein will be presenting several contemporary Abstract Expressionist artists both virtually at and in our gallery in Montreal in 2024.

Contact: Pete Stein - Galerie Stein at