In the 1940s and 50s a Rotterdam born painter helped define the first truly homegrown American art movement and put New York at the centre of modern art. In our latest instalment of 'Paintings on the Wall', journalist Adam Jacquesintroduces us to the works of Paul's friend Willem de Kooning.
INTRODUCING WILLEM DE KOONING: How does a penniless young Dutch stowaway transform into America’s first art superstar? Forging an incendiary new art movement called Abstract Impressionism helps, as does courting notoriety by painting some of the most frightening portraits of women in the history of art. Add to this turbulent canvas a tumultuous personal life and a wilful disregard for convention, and a revolution in the New York art scene emerges. And it not only made Willem a celebrity but, some argue, eventually shifted the epicentre of the art world itself, from Paris over to The Big Apple (with a little help from fellow genius New Yorkers Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko). And then there’s the small matter of the CIA – and how on earth it ended up using his work as a secret weapon — but we’ll get to the clandestine spy stuff later.
‘No.5’, 1948, Jackson Pollock
‘No. 61’ (Rust and Blue), 1953, Mark Rothko
WHAT IS ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM?: If Cubists break their subjects down into geometric fragments and Surrealists conjure up dreamlike scenes, what did the Abstract Expressionists do? Well arguably they are the most mind-bending of the lot because finding the threads that link the likes of paint-hurler Jackson Pollock, rectangle high priest Mark Rothko and ruptured figurative-and-landscape dauber Willem de Kooning, is at first glance a total head scratch. But what bound the Abstract Expressionist movement together was not what they did, but how they did it: applying ‘abstract’ shapes and forms onto a canvas to ‘express’ their emotions — or even inner psyches — through their thick daubes or splodges of paint, vigorously applied.
Which would have been fine if having formed a new movement, Willem then stuck to its rules – which he didn’t. It’s something that would rankle with the more rigid Pollock until his untimely death, once even accusing him of being a sell out. Perhaps that’s why we know what a Pollock painting ‘looks’ like, but not a de Kooning: he was way too restless or continuity.
EARLY YEARS: Born in Holland, in 1904, the foundations for those ferocious paintings of women mentioned earlier may have had their roots in his youth, thanks to an uneasy relationship with his terrifying mother, Cornelia. A fierce brawling bar-owner, she treated her kids like the rowdy sailors that frequented her raucous bar, terrorising and often physically beating Willem. So it’s not surprising that at 12 he jumped at the chance of an apprenticeship to a local printmakers — who were impressed enough with his talent to enrol him into Rotterdam’s fine art school for four years of evening classes to the learn the classics (and spend more time away from mother).
‘Still Life With Bowl, Pitcher and Jug’, 1921, Willem de Kooning
One glance at the painstakingly accurate ‘still life’ above, drawn at 16, and it could pass as a vintage black and white photo. But despite his mastery of realism he, like Picasso before him, would eventually turn his back on it — revealing something far more revolutionary in the process.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK: Lured by the land of opportunity, like countless European artists before him, Willem left for America. Well he tried to: cue several poorly executed attempts to stowaway on various ships first, before he finally arrived in New York City in 1928, with barely a word of English to his name. Eventually settling into the Greenwich Village neighbourhood in the late 1920s, de Kooning became immersed in an intoxicating mix of buzzing jazz bars, illicit drinking dens and ramshackle art studios, as he mixed with the musicians, painters and impoverished artists that filled the lively neighbourhood. And it’s where, in 1930, he met his hugely influential mentor, and first Manhattan room-mate, the Armenian born artist Arshile Gorky.
Gorky & Guernica: At first, de Kooning was content to dabble, producing low-key portraits of male acquaintances while still working on odd jobs sign-making and shop-front window dressing. But Gorky lived and breathed art, and their long meandering chats on how to transform classical techniques into new forms of abstract ainting electrified Willem - and inspired him to commit to canvas full time: well, in between the prodigious amount of drinking and partying you’d expect of a young bohemian artist.
A trip to see the Guernica in New York — Pablo Picasso’s masterwork depicting the barbarity of the Spanish Civil War — hit him like a thunderclap: it showed Willem that you could communicate a profound feeling for a subject in a painting, portrait or landscape, without the subjects being entirely recognisable.
Elaine de Kooning: Yet another momentous figure entered his life in 1938, in the form of the young, gregarious — but volatile — art student, Elaine Fried. His new art assistant-turned-muse lit a rocket under his creativity which would explode his canvas into colour. “Before I met Elaine I painted quiet men. Then I started to paint wild women,” he said. They embarked on a passionate affair and it led to his first major portrait of a woman — the lush, vibrant form of 'Seated Woman'. And we also get a final glimpse of his old-style classical style before it vanishes, with this tenderly composed drawing, a pictorial love letter yet to reveal the turbulent future brewing between them.
'Portrait of Elaine', circa 1940-41, Willem de Kooning
'Seated Woman', 1940, Willem de Kooning
Diving deep into his 10th Street studio de Kooning developed a new breed of portraits as he stripped realism from his images: with Elaine as his muse, 'Pink Angels' was his crackling debut in to what became known as American Abstract Expressionism. Creating vivid pink pigments, he used his kinetic brushstrokes to dissemble a seated female figure into warped, even anguished contortions — a wholesale nod to the savagery seen in Pablo Picasso’s Spanish Civil War landscape.
'Pink Angels', circa 1945, Willem de Kooning
Elaine and Willem got hitched in 1943, but had a decidedly lukewarm start to their marriage when Willem busted in on Elaine in bed with her ex-boyfriend. It was the start of a l egendarily tempestuous, on-off relationship over the next 46 years, fuelled by their struggles with alcoholism. Both were to have myriad infidelities. But although they separated for 20 years of reflection in the late 1950s, they never divorced.
One tip for becoming a famous portrait artist is not to be the wife of Willem de Kooning. Sharing her husband’s penchant for a ferocious brush, Elaine became a renowned art teacher, and an excellent portrait artist, with her series on US president, John F. Kennedy brilliantly capturing the man’s inner restlessness. But, amid the cacophony surrounding Willem’s rise to fame, she remained largely unknown outside of art circles and is arguably one of the most underrated female portrait artists of the 20th Century.
'JFK', 1963, Elaine de Kooning
BLACK & WHITE: It’s not often that you can say that being flat broke, and having your wife embarking on assorted affairs was the making of you, but these difficulties had a profound artistic effect on Willem. In the mid-late 1940s he had yet to be recognised as a painter, and most of what he painted he destroyed in fits of creative frustration. But that potent mix of estrangement and impoverishment forced Willem’s new, pared-back approach to gather pace: too poor to buy proper paint he and fellow painter Franz Kline would stick two fingers up at the traditional art establishment and go out and buy cheap black and white enamel household paint. “I could get a gallon of black paint and a gallon of white paint, and I could go to town,” he said. And so he did, and in an austere, palette-limited way he constructed a series of knotty Abstract Expressionist masterpieces. If a Harry Potter fan was to take a glance at his 1947 work, 'Dark Pond', they might feel like they’ve just had an unnerving encounter with a pack of swirling, otherworldly Dementors straight out of the novel. While the throng of distorted piled up body shapes in another work, 'Excavation', does what it says on the tin: look hard and you can see a previously buried creation that’s partly glimpsed below it — it’s almost archeological. Reworking and rebuilding over old efforts was to become a key feature of his art.
'Black Pond', 1947, Willem de Kooning
'Excavation', 1950, Willem de Kooning
FAME: If he was lazy, or keen to cash in, Willem could have stuck with that pared down monochrome style for the rest of his career, as the museums flung open their doors and magazines showered him with accolades. But de Kooning had an almost pathological fear of constriction, of being boxed in, so just when he was getting going, he abandoned the series, in 1950. But by then, the word was out: he’d been ‘discovered’.
It wasn’t until Pollock was tragically killed in a car accident, following a heavy night’s drinking, that de Kooning was crowned undisputed leader of this hot ‘new’ movement. And the pressure mounted. De Kooning wasn’t the sort of chap to enjoy success (except, perhaps, for the stream of attractive groupies who came knocking on his studio door). Painting, he once commented, “never seems to make me peaceful, or pure." The pressures of fame began to devour him physically and creatively: he’d often stare at a canvas for hours, before flying into rages of frustration, flinging furniture around or destroy whole canvases.
ALCOHOL: As a salve to his demons and anxieties, and to avoid his disdain for,“an ordinary existence”, de Kooning became such a heavy drinker that it would have a serious impact on his health, with countless admissions to hospital. A good night would see him piling into the local Cedar bar with fellow artists, drinking whisky and telling tales. Other nights he would roam the city. Blind drunk, he would sleep in the gutter. It wasn't until many years later that Elaine, re-joining his life in 1976, helped saved him from his demons, and got him sober.
THE CIA CONNECTION: On top of an enthralled art world the globe’s premier spy agency took an active interest, too. Along with deadly lipstick guns and covert microdot film, America’s CIA saw his stellar work - and that of fellow Abstract Expressionists Rothko and Pollock — as a secret weapon in the fight against the Soviets. In the propagandas war, their work represented American cultural might and the quintessential right of freedom of self-expression. So the CIA went to the trouble of setting up a front organisation, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, to promote AbEx works with a touring exhibition visiting every big European city in 1958-59, while simultaneously setting up magazines for willing art critics to champion the movement: which is a lot of effort to go to. Of course, one reason it was all top secret was because the American public at large still hated it — along with US president Harry Truman. But you know you’re doing something right when an American millionaire runs a full-page advertisement condemning your art movement in every major American newspaper as degenerate.
THAT WOMEN SERIES: To appreciate the furore caused by De Kooning’s next series it’s worth considering the societal expectations of women in the US at the time, as demure, doting, wholesome housewives rather than the sexually avaricious figures that came out of de Kooning’s head, and seen in his 'Woman' series. His series of six 'woman' portraits, which he painted between 1950 and 1952, is his most disturbing work: just look at those rapacious penetrating eyes, fang-like teeth bared in a frightening grin and those grotesque gigantic breasts topping off that monstrous female form. The longer you look at it, the more unsettled you feel. Once you’ve comes to terms with the 'what', then comes the 'who': some say it represented an image of Elaine in her most monstrous moments, while an alarmed Elaine, understandably keen to distance the monstrosity from herself, pointed the finger at Cornelia, claiming (along with several critics) that it was a gurning image of Willem's frightening, dysfunctional mother, which had long haunted him. It’s likely a mix of all the above, his series a vessel for pouring every repressed sexual emotion and troubled female memory onto his canvas. It caused uproar, with critics vehemently attacking him as a misogynist.
'Woman l', 1950-52, Willem de Kooning
'Seated Woman', 1952, Willem de Kooning
de Kooning in his studio in the 1950s
WILLEM THE ACTION PAINTER: Watching Willem at work in the studio fashioning a masterpiece such as 'Woman 1' would have been akin to watching a sort of frenzied performance art. With his brush, de Kooning could express a relentless stream of inner energy, attacking each part of the canvas and often punching holes in it from the violence of his brush strokes, before obsessively scraping the paint back off and ferociously reworking new forms over the ruins: he was an Action Man painter and those furious strokes defined both his work, and his art movement. Yet 'Woman 1' was a gruelling experience, and tormented by its perceived inadequacies he abandoned it. Until, in "history's luckiest studio visit" (as one critic called it), a chance drop in by friend and art historian Meyer Schapiro rescued it from obscurity. When the whole series went on display, in 1953, his fame skyrocketed. And when a young artist comes to your door asking for one of your paintings, so he can erase it, and then publicly exhibit the ghostly remains, infamy is guaranteed.
WILLEM’S OTHER WOMEN: It seems to be a fact of life in creative circles that affairs equal creative bursts. And, surrounded by an attractive entourage drawn to his fame and genius, de Kooning embarked on a string of affairs over the next 20 years, one tumbling into another, each appearing to leave their mark and propel great bursts of invention in his work: his relationship with Ruth Kligman, an ostentatious, limelight-hunting artist and former girlfriend to the late Pollock appeared to bring on a strident, imperial style, with the likes of abstract landscape ‘Ruth’s Zowie’.
'Ruth's Zowie', 1957, Willem de Kooning
'Sag Harbor', 1964, Willem de Kooning
“She really put lead in my pencil,” de Kooning once exclaimed of her. While his relationship with the young artist Susan Brockman unleashed a fleshy, ferociously erotic direction in his work that briefly moved away from abstract portraits.
A CHANGE OF SCENERY: Having found fame, he now wanted to avoid its constant interruption, and promptly moving out of Manhattan to Long Island, in the 1960s, a flat vista that held reassuring echoes for Willem, of his native Holland. And in between long cycle rides around the island he took the opportunity to switch styles again. Which leads to the question, when is a landscape not a landscape? When its vistas such as 'Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point' or 'Palisade', works that evoke the feeling of a picturesque scene — but without an obvious tree, hill or ocean in sight.
‘Palisade', 1957, Willem de Kooning
'Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point', 1963, Willem de Kooning
A master of mixing, de Kooning had been in love with the cuisine of painting since his early days working in Rotterdam. And even now he was still infusing new paint ingredients into his work: he treated pigments as a chef would treat fine ingredients, cooking up novel servings of succulent paint from a vast palette of colours that he'd mixed himself. This was a man who literally enjoyed watching paint dry.
'La Guardia in a Paper Hat', 1972, Willem de Kooning
'Wah Kee Spare Ribs', 1970, Willem de Kooning
'Clamdigger', 1972, Willem de Kooning
But every art movement has its time in the sun, and as the Andy Warhol-led Pop Art extravaganza became the new cutting edge of American art, painting as medium seemed passé — and de Kooning found himself fading out of favour with the critics. Willem, now wealthy, ploughed on regardless, pursuing an ever-evolving suite of styles.
'UNTITLED 1', 1985, Willem de Kooning
A DIFFICULT JOURNEY INWARD: Bill and Elaine were not destined to be apart forever, and, in the late 1970s, Elaine returned to his life to help him get sober and look after his East Hampton studio, as his alcoholism ran rampant. It’s also a bittersweet period for the artist. As, with a little encouragement from Elaine, a whole new graphic style took route in the early 1980s. With canvases such as 'UNTITLED 1', it felt like Willem De Kooning, late in life, had finally found some room to breath - physically and emotionally. It may have kicked up a fuss amongst his stalwart fans initially: many thought that this new freewheeling direction, with its simple thick graphic brushstrokes, was a mistake. But his work, at first seen as overly simplistic, was eventually seen a triumph of freeform expression, like a Miles Davis Jazz performance. It represented one of his few styles entirely devoid of human form, perhaps drawn from an elegant, pared down style picked up from his earlier trips to Japan, in the early 1970s.
Sadly, just as De Kooning work began to spring back in vogue, dementia began to make steep inroads into his life and art. Yet the act of applying paint was so engrained into his psyche, that even with his memory and hands failing, he painted until the last two years of his life, finally passing away at 92.
THE McCARTNEY CONNECTION: But could a famous singer-songwriter have kept a little piece of Willem tucked away in his soul? It was no coincidence when, back in the late 1970s, Paul first met Willem de Kooning, still a sprightly man in his mid 70s. The connection goes back years, as Linda McCartney’s father, Lee Eastman, was de Kooning’s long-standing lawyer and close family friend, often bringing in special visitors, often including Linda and Paul, to see the ageing artist. And it was visiting his studio one day, to watch him mix colours and paint, that got McCartney hooked on de Kooning's process itself. Unlike music there were no rules in abstract painting, so it must have felt liberating for Paul: perhaps, with its luscious colours and strident brush strokes, McCartney’s abstract works, such as 'Key of F' and 'Robot and Star' carry a little of Willem de Kooning on to this day.
'Key of F', Paul McCartney
'Robot and Star', 1995, Paul McCartney
A PS from PM:
"I was lucky enough to know Willem de Kooning because Linda’s father, Lee Eastman Snr., was his lawyer. We would visit his studio in Springs, Long Island and admire his works in progress. I once asked him what one of his abstract pictures was and he said he didn’t know and that it was open to my interpretation. I thought it looked like a purple mountain, he thought it looked like a couch! The point was that his painting was more to do with composition, colour and style rather than anything of significant meaning. Once he’d said this it was a great inspiration to me to start painting, where as in the past I would have been too embarrassed to even buy a canvas and paints. Friends of mine had looked at de Kooning’s paintings and said, 'I could do that,' but in fact this is far f rom true and I consider him to be one of the greatest abstract painters ever."
Paul and Willem de Kooning, East Hampton, 1983. Photo by Linda McCartney.