Sunday, April 8, 2012

"de Kooning: An American Master": Chaos And Creative Genius

de Kooning: An American Master by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. 630 pp. Alfred A. Knopf

After viewing the de Kooning retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (my review here), I had to read this biography. Born to a poor family in Rotterdam, Willem Kooning was trained in an art academy, came to America as an illegal stowaway and became part of the bohemian artistic life in Greenwich Village. Evolving into one of the leading abstract expressionists, he was close to artists Arshile Gorky and Franz Kline and something of a rival to Jackson Pollock. He also had a tumultuous, on-and-off relationship with painter Elaine de Kooning, née Fried.

A thorough individualist, de Kooning could not follow a straight path in his private or artistic life. He conducted affairs with several women at once and, though an abstract artist, always returned to the human figure. This was especially the case in his powerful, comical and malevolent “Women” series (to those who see misogyny, de Kooning’s relationship with his domineering mother must have played a part, as it did with his inability to form a stable relationship). Critics who called for “pure” abstract expressionism were disappointed to see the figure in his work. Regardless, de Kooning worked on "Woman I" obsessively for two years. His doubt and endless re-working of his art made him an existential hero in the 1950s, during the postwar era when angst was part of the zeitgeist. When pop art and minimalism became more fashionable, de Kooning continued to follow his vision.

Stevens and Swan take the reader through subsequent shifts in de Kooning’s art, as it evolved from the slashing, aggressive canvases created downtown to the broader brush strokes and luminous colors following his move to Springs, Long Island. His turn toward the pastoral, however, didn’t necessarily mean a more stable private life. De Kooning’s alcoholism became more pronounced, including destructive binges and hospitalizations. Toward the end of his life, Elaine returned to manage his affairs and ensure enough stability so that, even with the onset of Alzheimer’s, de Kooning embarked on a final phase characterized by a stripped-down, lighter touch. Stevens and Swan provide a full understanding of their elusive subject and the contours of his masterful career in a biography that is a masterpiece in itself.

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