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Willem de Kooning

American, born the Netherlands, 1904 - 1997

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Willem de Kooning, one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, was born in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, in 1904. Following formal studies in fine and applied art at the Rotterdam Academy, he emigrated to America at age twenty-two. In New York he initially supported himself as a house painter and commercial artist. During the late 1920s and 1930s he developed friendships with fellow painters Stuart Davis, John Graham, and Arshile Gorky, and painted murals for the Federal Arts Project before devoting himself full-time to a career as an artist in 1936.

De Kooning's first solo exhibition of black-and-white abstractions was held in 1948, and by 1950 he had become a key figure of abstract expressionism. He is best known for a provocative series of paintings of women, whose aggressive forms are rendered with slashing strokes and dripping paint. Simultaneously ferocious and comical, the meaning of these images is still disputed.

One of the most remarkable aspects of de Kooning's career was his ability to move between figurative and abstract modes. In 1963 de Kooning moved to Springs, Long Island. The women and figures in landscapes from the 1960s, with their lighter colors and fluid brushstroke, were inspired by the light and water that surrounded him on Long Island. In 1975, after exploring the medium of sculpture for two years, de Kooning began a new series of dense, richly colored abstractions. His late work consists of calligraphic, predominantly white canvases that demonstrate the artist's ultimate synthesis of figuration and abstraction, of painting and drawing, of color and line. Willem de Kooning died on 19 March 1997.

[This is an excerpt from the interactive companion to the videodisc American Art from the National Gallery of Art.]

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