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Willem de Kooning

(1904—1997) Dutch-born American painter

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Dutch-born US painter. In the late 1940s he became, with Jackson Pollock, the leading figure in the abstract expressionist school, which helped to transfer ascendancy in the arts from Paris to New York.

In 1916 de Kooning left his native Rotterdam to serve an apprenticeship with a firm of commercial decorators in Amsterdam. At the same time he began to study art and produced drawings and paintings in a traditional style before emigrating in 1926. In the USA he experimented with abstract styles derived from Kandinsky and late cubism and formed a close friendship and working relationship with the painter Arshile Gorky. His employment on the Federal Arts Project in the 1930s enabled him to become a full-time painter. He worked in several styles, ranging from greyish abstraction to detailed figurative work, and his drawings showed him to be one of the great draughtsmen of the century.

Although he was influential among the artists in New York it was not until 1948 that he had his first one-man exhibition and his leading position was confirmed. A characteristic work of this time is Painting (1948), consisting of black forms that, though not representational, retain echoes of the human body. De Kooning's Excavation (1950) signalled the return of colour to his work. In this and in most of his later work the female form, whether represented or merely hinted at, remained a central theme, particularly in the series that began with Woman 1 in 1952. His paintings alternated between the figurative and the abstract and during the 1970s de Kooning also turned to figurative expressionistic sculpture. For the last ten years of his life he suffered from Alzheimer's Disease but continued to produce prolifically: the status of these late works has raised acute medical and aesthetic questions.

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