Willem de Kooning: In Process
Abstract Expressionist artist Willem de Kooning has long been celebrated as one of the most influential painters of the 20th century. While renowned for his spontaneous gestural style, de Kooning’s paintings were in fact the result of intensive labor, long contemplation and continual reworking. Willem de Kooning: In Process, is the first exhibition to exclusively focus on this aspect of de Kooning’s work, examining the wide variety of technical procedures he employed during the course of his long career.
Despite his claims to change and chance, de Kooning demonstrated lasting preferences for subjects as well as technical procedures. From the late 1940s through the late 1980s, de Kooning regularly reused and recycled his paintings and drawings. This exhibition explores the procedures behind de Kooning’s continual shifts between painting and drawing, revealing the way in which they influenced his finished work.
De Kooning frequently made tracings of all or part of a finished painting. Using tracing paper and eventually large sheets of vellum, he copied various elements and incorporated them into subsequent works. The viscous quality of his paint surface also led de Kooning to place sheets of paper on a wet canvas to soak up the excess oil. He used this method from the 1950s through the late 1970s and while he usually discarded the sheets, he occasionally used the lifted image as a starting point for new paintings. During the mid-1980s, de Kooning projected photocopies of small, earlier drawings onto a large canvas and incorporated these projected transfers into separate works.
Although de Kooning’s palette and subject matter varied during the course of his career, the interdependence between his paintings and drawings played a vital role in his creative process. De Kooning, like many artists, surrounded himself with earlier works, photographs and reproductions. Scattered across his studio, they were a constant source of inspiration as de Kooning often repeated similar configurations or combinations of strokes.
“So preoccupied with process was Willem de Kooning,” says exhibition curator Klaus Kertess, “that he signed his paintings only when they had to leave his studio and almost never dated them. No artist of his generation, nor perhaps of any other, engaged in and made so visible procedures of creating that were as rich, complex, playful and malleable as did Willem de Kooning.”
Born in Holland and trained as a draftsman at the Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques in Rotterdam, de Kooning (1904-1997) came to the United States in 1926, already steeped in traditional painting and knowledgeable about the art of Picasso and other modernist artists. He first found work as a house painter in Hoboken, New Jersey and then as a commercial artist in New York City. During the Depression, he worked on the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration. There he experienced the camaraderie of other painters as well as sculptors, architects and writers and began to make the transition toward being a professional artist. Friendships with John Graham and Arshile Gorky bolstered de Kooning’s desire to be an artist and by the late 1940s he, along with Jackson Pollock, had become a seminal force in the Abstract Expressionist movement.