Willem De Kooning, one of the recognized masters of abstract expressionism, was a founder of the New York School of action painting. Born and raised in tidy, neat Holland, De Kooning created art that is the antithesis of calm. His paintings seem to retain the force of instantaneous creation, with images continuing to grow out of other images.
Born in Rotterdam in 1904, De Kooning received a solid background in the applied arts as an apprentice, first for a commercial art firm and then for a display and sign painter. Through the latter, he was exposed to the de Stijl geometric design movement, led by Mondrian, and to the cubist revolutionaries of Paris.
Working by day, he studied painting in evening classes at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques. In 1924, he went to Belgium for further study; two years later, as a stowaway, he came to the United States.
De Kooning settled in Hoboken, New Jersey and supported himself as a house painter. His early paintings were experimental. Although he admired the order and purity of Mondrian's work, his own showed no trace of it.
In 1933, he became a friend of Arshile Gorky, with whom he shared an intense admiration for cubism and Picasso. Gorky had a far-reaching influence on De Kooning's development.
In the late 1930s, De Kooning worked for the WPA Federal Art Project and, for the first time, earned his living as an artist. It was not until 1948, however, that he was ready for his first one-man show of masterful black paintings with white-line drawing. That same year, his friend Gorky committed suicide. It was a stunning blow to De Kooning and yet, at the same time, a liberation. Paintings, sardonic and violent, began to pour from his brush.
In 1952, obsessed with interest in the human figure, De Kooning began a long series of paintings of women, the most powerful work that he had yet done.
He explored the theme over and over again. Sometimes it was woman as sex symbol; other times, as in Woman 1 (1952, Museum of Modern Art), she is depicted as a repellent, sharp-fanged, horn-bosomed vampire. Each time, De Kooning seemed to attack the canvas savagely, letting paint drip and dribble down the surface. Since the 1960s, he has alternated between pure abstractions and paintings of women.
"Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure," De Kooning once said. "I always seem to be wrapped up in the melodrama of vulgarity."