Willem de Kooning

Art & Culture

Home to the Famous Abstract Expressionist During the Heyday of his Career

Willem de Kooning nyc exterior east village

About Willem de Kooning

 & why it made the Carpe City list

  • Willem de Kooning was a foundational figure in the Abstract Expressionist art scene.  More on the Abstract Expressionist movement below!
  • Born in April 1904 in Rotterdam, Netherlands, de Kooning traveled to America in 1926 as a stowaway on a British freighter bound for Argentina. He disembarked in Virginia and moved to Manhattan the next year.
  • De Kooning made his living as a carpenter, house painter, and commercial artist while creating his artwork in his free time.
  • His first art exhibit was a group show in 1936 at the Museum of Modern Art.
  • Excavation (1950), considered one of the greatest paintings of the 20th century, is de Kooning’s most popular work, epitomizing his abstract style.
  • From 1952-58, de Kooning lived at 88 East 10th Street, which served as his studio and home.
  • At the time, he and his contemporaries, including Jackson Pollack, were having a profound impact on the art world, creating galleries and studios on East 10th Street.  More about the famous 10th St. Galleries below!
  • In 1961 he moved to the Springs area of East Hampton, Long Island, where he died in 1997.

Carpe City Trivia

What is Abstract Expressionism?

Abstract Expressionism, an art movement also known as the New York School, started in New York in the 1940s and 50s and featured the use of colors and abstract forms. Focusing not on objects and what they look like, but rather the portrayal of the emotions, colors, and visions that the subjects evoke, it followed on the heels of the Surrealism movement but differed in its incorporation of post-war anxiety, trauma, and emotion. Paintings of this movement are characterized by their large scale, sweeping brush strokes, vibrant and varied colors, and lack of traditional composition. Some famous Abstract Expressionist artists include Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, and Mark Rothko.

Willem de Kooning's Woman Paintings

De Kooning’s Woman Series is a group of paintings started in the 1940s that continued through the 1950s. The paintings depict, well, women, but in his particular, abstract context. De Kooning plays with proportions and distorts pretty much everything, as abstract expressionist art does. The series features six paintings. He created more than 200 sketches as preparation for painting Woman I, according to his wife, the painter Elaine de Kooning. It’s not that the women are any more warped than some of the strange, cubist women painted by Picasso. Many critics looked at the Women paintings and saw them as degrading towards women, while others identified the paintings as continuing a conversation amongst artists through time, exploring the shapes and figures of women. It’s said that artist Robert Rauschenberg asked de Kooning for one of his Woman sketches so that he might erase it – one heck of a criticism! That de Kooning consented to another artist destroying his work is certainly a testament to de Kooning’s faith in the artistic process.

Willem De Kooning - Woman - Photo Courtesy of Flickr missvancamp
Willem De Kooning - Woman - Photo Courtesy of Flickr missvancamp

The Tenth Street Galleries

The East 10th Street Galleries, located on the short block between 3rd and 4th Avenues, opened in the early 1950s as a group of cooperative, artist-run galleries. The spaces were small, and no one served as staff, per se. These galleries were a community-run alternative to some of the more established galleries uptown. The galleries solidified the neighborhood as a popular and influential gathering place for artists who operated outside the mainstream, doing more daring and unusual work, as eclectic as the Village itself. The galleries hosted sculptors, painters, photographers, and performance artists working in collage, and experimenting with early Pop Art (made famous by Andy Warhol). The galleries even brought together Realists (like Villager Edward Hopper) and Abstract Expressionists like de Kooning, working at opposite ends of the broad spectrum of the art world. One of the galleries in this group, called the Tanager (1953-1962), was right next door to de Kooning’s home. De Kooning never showed at the 10th Street Galleries.  He was already established and shown in more prominent galleries and museums.  However, because he was nearby, he mentored many up-and-coming artists in the neighborhood.

By: Cyd Sacks & Ariel Kates
Photography by:

Christi Scofield, Wikimedia Commons, and Flickr Missvancamp

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