Abstract expressionism is a post-World-War II art movement, emerged from New York in the 1940s. The term was defined by new forms of abstract art by American painters such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. It is often characterized by styles like gestural abstraction and spontaneity. It was inspired by the surrealist idea that art should come from an unconscious mind. The art also springs from automatism, which refers to a set of brief unconscious behaviors that last for several seconds or longer, the subject is usually unaware of his/her actions.
As an early pioneer of the style, Dutch American Painter Willem de Kooning started his journey at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts. He was quite talented and a well-known student. His amazing still-lifes characterized by geometric shapes and strong colors easily landed him a job with an art director.
In 1926, with an inspiration of living and exploring art, De Kooning boarded a ship bound for the United States. His legacy started from working in New York City for a federal art project by WPA (Works Progress Administration). The murals he created were the beginning of his abstract journey.
This decision made him a full-time artist and he worked on his first series of portrait paintings: Two standing men, Seated Figure, a combination of self-portraits, and a lot more. From his realist drawings to absolute expressionism, he evolved as a pure action-painter. His paintings on the Theme of the Woman were the start of his style and a drive for figurative abstraction. Although he abandoned them in 1956 in favor of exploring his newly developed style. These paintings were followed by wild experimentation, urban landscapes, and in the 1960s, a new group of Women.
Willem de Kooning left the Netherlands to live his life as art. He was committed to art as well as expressions born out of pure emotions. This translated into the best of his pieces that fitted the post-war period of trauma and anxiety.
For him, abstraction was born out when people had the idea that they could free art from itself. Until then, Art meant everything that was in it—not what you could take out of it. There were many things one would take out of it, mood, a sensation, or sometimes absolutely nothing. In “What Abstract Art Means to Me,” a talk delivered at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, February 5, 1951, Willem De Kooning reveals that he didn’t need a movement to start abstract paintings. He was always inclined to cubism as it had a wonderful unsure atmosphere of the reflection-a poetic frame where something could be possible, where an artist could practice his intuition. The parts that I can appreciate in other movements came out of Cubism. Abstract art for Willem De Kooning was equivalent to a person’s life experience like an expression on someone’s face after living years of life. This is where the biomorphic surrealism in his Women series comes from. He almost had exhaustingly energetic surreal colors, Pink angel 1945 is the early example of this. As expressions change, he too changed with constant experimentations, even if it was a failure. Willem De Kooning would rework, over and over again on his painting, letting mistakes happen to guide his next composition. According to him, accepting imperfection and failures unburdened and opened him to experimentation.
“It’s not even thinking in terms of one’s limitations, because they have to come naturally. I think whatever you have you can do wonders with it if you accept it.”
-Willem de Kooning
Style of Work
Abstract Expressionism can be divided into many styles one of which is gestural abstraction, also called action painting. It is a style in which the colours are splashed onto the canvas, rather than being meticulously applied. De Kooning worked in this style, in a spontaneous improvisatory manner using large brushes and creating marks on bold colors. In some of the paintings an underdrawing was discovered which relieved that initially, he danced his brush around the lines as an inspiration. He directly placed his inner impulses onto the canvas.
The artist who was widely known for his paintings and evolution of style was less recognized for his unconventional and traditional materials that give specific effects. In his Queen of Hearts 1943-1946, is the most significant in technique as it took three years in between his rigorous training and the creation of his Women. It evolved through a series of stages that reveal an amalgamation of traditional to unconventional approaches. In many of his paintings, he used metal scrapers, a mixture of granules, and small pebbles to give a rough dimension. During these breakthrough years 1946-1949, he painted bold strokes of black and white home enamel paints which remain important to history because of the densely impacted forms, mixed media, and technique. Color played a significant role in his paintings, especially in the ones after he moved to East Hampton. He created new palettes of oranges, pinks, and yellows to incorporate the senses of the urban outdoors.
Later analysis of these colors and techniques confirms that Willem de Kooning created his unique style by manipulating methods that appealed to the piece he was painting. Use of paints directly from the tubes, mixing retail paints with charcoal and ground glass, or using cooking oil and water onto canvas, for him the use of paints and brushes were merely mediums to convey this abstraction and thinking.
Willem De Kooning’s entire career was a devotion to art and he lived his life with the bohemian ideals of art and life as one. Growing with a style solely based on intuition and full expression of oneself he came to understand that, “Artist’s work for themselves rather than critics or patrons”. De Kooning’s use of color, technique, and gestural application with disregard to conventional methods inspired painters and critics like Clement Greenberg to denounce the term “Tenth Street touch.” Artists such as Larry Rivers and Grace Hartigan took his figurative abstracts to new forms
After painting beautiful strokes of natural landscapes and designing sculptures, the artist died March 19, 1997, on Long Island.
Willem De Kooning was fired from his position at WAF because of immigration issues and ironically, he was one of the artists that played a major role in putting America on the world map for abstract expressionism and action painting. In 2011, the Museum of modern art staged “De Kooning: A Retrospective,” the first major museum show dedicated to the full range of De Kooning’s career. His retrospective shows him breaking his own rules over and over again to create authentic pieces of art. It shows him at ease with all types of techniques and hallmarks- be it commercial or high-grade, postmodernist or newsprint. This openness and combination could make him the pioneer of Abstract Expressionism.
“Now I go down to the beach on my bicycle and search for a new landscape image. When I see a puddle, I just stare into it. Later, I don’t paint it, but the image of it calls up within me. All the images inside are from nature anyway.”
Willem de Kooning