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de Kooning: An American Master by Mark…

de Kooning: An American Master (2004)

by Mark Stevens, Annalyn Swan

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An outstanding biography of an important and remarkable life; perhaps the best biography of an artist I've ever read. The scholarly tone is measured, accessible, restrained and illuminating. ( )
  Narboink | Aug 11, 2011 |
Willem de Kooning painted big canvases that reflected the way he lived: large. He juggled up to five love affairs at one time (and kept them all secret from each other and his wife, Elaine, with a variety of code door knocks), out-painted his rivals, such as Jackson Pollock, and was perhaps only happy drunk and asleep in a gutter. It was there, to riff on Wilde, that he saw the stars. De Kooning was the bohemian: part artist, part intellectual, part alcoholic playboy and pure adventuresome genius.

He was born in Rotterdam in 1904, and stowed away to the U.S. in the mid-twenties. He was already a master draughtsman, and went to work in New York as a commercial artist and window dresser. He made a pretty good living that way. In the 1930s, though, he abandoned commercial art in favor of the more dangerous path: “pure” art. De Kooning quit his jobs at the height of the Depression and just in time to help formulate a major wave in American (and world) painting: Abstract Expressionism.

He finally made it big in 1948 with a show at the Egan Gallery. He bucked expectations—and Abstract Expressionism—by next producing a series of more or less figurative works, the Woman series. These scribbley, colorful and larger-than-life canvasses were inspired by his wife and solidified de Kooning’s reputation as an artist first among equals. “I might work on a painting for a month,” he said, “but it has to look like I painted it in a minute.” A New York minute, at that: spontaneous and confrontational, a collision of high and low, of the child-like and the anciently wise.

De Kooning was a true student of art history: not of the books or the critics, but of the pictures themselves. He learned from and incorporated into his own works the styles of everyone from the painters of the walls of Lascaux to Picasso. As the critic Harold Rosenberg said,

If you had your own idea, that was it, you were stuck with it. The history of painting, however, contained endless inventions which the living painter could make his own. Even inventing a thing that had already been invented was an act of creation. De Kooning likes to call this ‘inventing the harpsichord’—the fact that we have the harpsichord, and even the piano that superseded it, does not prevent the invention that brought it into being from being legitimately repeated.

Stevens’ and Swan’s book is a delight for both art fans and gossip hounds, and it’s easy to see why it one the 2005 Pulitzer for biography. De Kooning was a wild man and he died the tragic death of the untamable. He lived a life that defied expectations and broke a lot of hearts. He painted a legacy that fills hearts and eyes with delight and wonder, and that will outlive us all.

Originally published in Curled Up with a Good Book ( )
  funkendub | Sep 30, 2010 |
This a great biography, especially if you are interested in art or artists. The research seems impeccable, and it's well written. His methods, rise, and fall are all interesting. I don't know much about art, but I like the abstract impressionists for some reason. The book is thick, but I couldn't put it down. I finished it in two weeks of Christmas break. ( )
  wilsonknut | Jun 18, 2008 |
4024. de Kooning: An American Master, by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Master (read 18 May 2005) This won this year's Pulitzer for biography, else I would never have read it (I have read 56 of the about 88 books which have won the Pulitzer Biography prize). This is a formidable book and has many of the attributes a good biography should have. de Kooning was born Apr 24, 1904 in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and came to the US in 1926 as a stowaway on a British freighter. The parts of the book relating his disordered life were of some interest, but the discussion of his painting was often just gibberish to me. Looking at his paintings reminded me of the boy's comments: "The Emperor has no clothes." But that merely shows what an illiterate I am in regard to painting such as de Kooning became famous and rich for. The authors hold that Jackson Pollack and de Kooning are the greatest American painters of the 20th century. I look on reading this book as an event in my reading life and as worthwhile, happy though I am that many people are not such amoral people as Willem de Kooning was. ( )
  Schmerguls | Oct 15, 2007 |
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Swan, Annalynmain authorall editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375711163, Paperback)

Gossipier than any tabloid, as scholarly as Vasari, luminously illustrated and illuminating as a lightning bolt, Stevens' and Swan's landmark biography is one of the most stunning art books I've seen in seven years of Amazon.com reviewing--a masterpiece that explains how the Dutchman de Kooning became the master painter of the American century. It's a page-turning tale: raised by a mom who beat him with wooden shoes, de Kooning escaped Rotterdam as a stowaway on a freighter and found a second family in New York's rampageous art bohemia. He subsisted on ketchup and booze, and broke through around 1950 with dazzling abstract expressionist canvases inspired by what was in the air: cubism, surrealism, jazz, and film noir. The careerist thing to do would've been to ride the Ab Ex tsunami, but de Kooning stubbornly defied purist abstraction with the startlingly quasi-figurative Woman paintings. Stevens and Swan artfully show how much went into these notorious works. De Kooning's Woman is "part vamp, part tramp," a Hollywood pinup girl with push-up bazooms, a dirty joke and a scary goddess based on a Mexican deity to whom hearts were sacrificed. She is also part Mom and part Elaine de Kooning, his artist/muse wife, and the numberless women he juggled.

He called himself a "slipping glimpser," and this book helps us see what he saw. Nobody has ever made de Kooning's slippery meanings and painstaking techniques clearer, in every phase, even the mysterious late paintings evincing the artist's advancing Alzheimer's-like illness. Now I finally get what essentially distinguished de Kooning from his rivalrous pals Gorky and Pollock, and more. I also know what de Kooning was like in bed (loud), how he managed to cheat on five steady lovers at a time(different doorbell codes), why he slept drunk in gutters even after he got rich, and how deeply he loved and how coldly he used women. Stevens and Swan manage to do what no dame ever did: they pin down his oblique soul. --Tim Appelo

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:54 -0400)

Traces the career of abstract expressionist Willem De Kooning, discussing his personal life with wife Elaine Fried, and his battle with alcoholism and Alzheimer's disease.

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