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de Kooning: An American Master [Hardcover]

Mark Stevens , Annalyn Swan
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Nov 2004
Willem de Kooning is one of the most important artists of the twentieth century, a true “painter’s painter” whose protean work continues to inspire many artists. In the thirties and forties, along with Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock, he became a key figure in the revolutionary American movement of abstract expressionism. Of all the painters in that group, he worked the longest and was the most prolific, creating powerful, startling images well into the 1980s.

The first major biography of de Kooning captures both the life and work of this complex, romantic figure in American culture. Ten years in the making, and based on previously unseen letters and documents as well as on hundreds of interviews, this is a fresh, richly detailed, and masterful portrait. The young de Kooning overcame an unstable, impoverished, and often violent early family life to enter the Academie in Rotterdam, where he learned both classic art and guild techniques. Arriving in New York as a stowaway from Holland in 1926, he underwent a long struggle to become a painter and an American, developing a passionate friendship with his fellow immigrant Arshile Gorky, who was both a mentor and an inspiration. During the Depression, de Kooning emerged as a central figure in the bohemian world of downtown New York, surviving by doing commercial work and painting murals for the WPA. His first show at the Egan Gallery in 1948 was a revelation. Soon, the critics Harold Rosenberg and Thomas Hess were championing his work, and de Kooning took his place as the charismatic leader of the New York school—just as American art began to dominate the international scene.

Dashingly handsome and treated like a movie star on the streets of downtown New York, de Kooning had a tumultuous marriage to Elaine de Kooning, herself a fascinating character of the period. At the height of his fame, he spent his days painting powerful abstractions and intense, disturbing pictures of the female figure—and his nights living on the edge, drinking, womanizing, and talking at the Cedar bar with such friends as Franz Kline and Frank O’Hara. By the 1960s, exhausted by the feverish art world, he retreated to the Springs on Long Island, where he painted an extraordinary series of lush pastorals. In the 1980s, as he slowly declined into what was almost certainly Alzheimer’s, he created a vast body of haunting and ethereal late work.

This is an authoritative and brilliant exploration of the art, life, and world of an American master.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 752 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group (Nov 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400041759
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400041756
  • Product Dimensions: 4.5 x 17.8 x 24.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,039,586 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb piece of writing and research 15 Jun 2009
Some of the worst writing around can be found within the covers of art monographs, as if buyers are really only interested in the illustrations. However Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan have produced one of the finest biographies of any artist that I have read: well researched, superbly - and often wittily - written, and decently illustrated for a biography. De Kooning's fascinating life and often fraught relationships are portrayed vividly and major works are analysed in some depth. I understand these authors are now writing on Francis Bacon, a book that will be keenly awaited by this reader. Although the book includes a colour plate section of De Kooning's key works, it's worth buying the Taschen paperback by Barbara Hess to glance at alongside this monumental biography. Highly recommended.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Exceptionally Good 13 Jan 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is probably one of, if not, THE greatest biography ever written about an artist. It's a masterpiece, and as Amazon says, "a page turning tale".

I relished in following De Kooning's process and progress as an artist from his very beginnings in extreme poverty (living on ketchup in a New York Studio with no heat and spending his money on art supplies) and struggle, to becoming one of the most important and revered painters that ever hit the American painting stage.

It was fascinating to read this brilliantly written account of the New York art scene in the 30's and 40's during the depression and war years, and the bursting forth of the powerful American abstract expressionists in the 50's when New York became the powerhouse center of the Art World.

Most of all, what I took away from this was De Kooning's fierce commitment to his art; reading of his phenomenal drive and passion to paint every single day, through poverty, rejection, artistic blocks, success, fame and decline, was both mesmerizing and sobering.

De Kooning, Portrait of an American Master felt like an experience of being up close with a genius
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.7 out of 5 stars  50 reviews
71 of 75 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Master 10 Dec 2004
By Driver9 - Published on
What an amazing man, living in an amazing time. I was very moved by this biography, especially in the way in which de Kooning and his world come alive. The writing contains enough analysis to help connect the dots of the artist's life. And the book is rich in detail, especially about the art world in downtown New York from the 1930s on. I enjoyed reading some of the detailed descriptions of various New York venues.

One thing that struck me was how uniformly negative most of the reviews of de Kooning were. It seems as though he enjoyed a brief romance period with the critics early on, when his work was still entirely abstract. That was in 1950, after his work "Excavation." After that, the critics basically wrote him off, declaring that he was past his prime. There were, of course, some exceptions to this, including de Kooning himself.

It was also distressing to read in detail the gradual deterioration of the artist by alcohol and his destructive personal behavior. This was the only aspect of the book I had difficulty with, as at times I felt like a peeping tom, peering in on the lurid goings on in the de Kooning household. But I don't suppose there is any way to tell the story without telling that part of it. It is no big secret that many great artists, performers, poets, writers, etc., have had more than their fair share of demons to contend with, and this biography illuminates that point vividly.

The biography is extremely well written and the pages fall away with novelistic abandon. I did not feel weighed down by an over abundance of detail, but I also came away feeling very "satisfied" as a reader. Please go ahead and treat yourself to a powerful experience. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in artistic expression, in the process of creative expression and where it comes from, in the craftmanship and hard work that goes into his art, and in a fascinating period in history. The authors have captured a dynamic view into the soul of a master.
26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Totally Absorbing and Masterful Book 24 Nov 2004
By Ellen Pall - Published on
I found this book riveting--both a brilliant portrait of the artist and a deeply felt exploration of his art. In the past, I was always puzzled by the passionate, reverent affection a friend of mine, a successful figurative painter, expressed for de Kooning's work. Now I get it. Like all good criticism, "De Kooning: An American Master" expands the reader's understanding of (and appreciation for) the art it luminously examines. At the same time, the authors deftly conjure forth a three-dimensional picture of de Kooning the man: self-contradictory, funny, brilliant, maddening, and wholly original. The result is an insightful, fascinating book-as Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times, "smart and unflinching," "remarkably lucid," a "sweeping, authoritative biography."
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars de Kooning 24 Nov 2004
By Alice Rose George - Published on
I was outraged by Edward Baiamonte's review of the biography DE KOONING, AN AMERICAN MASTER. Mine is not a review but a rebuttal to such harmful comments. When he speaks of "egotistically" I think he should look at himself, who seems to think he alone knows what art should be expressing. De Kooning's work is a great importance in the history of art and in the expression of the inner self of a great artist. De Kooning was well trained in the Old Masters type of portraiture (if this man read the book, he'd know that),;he had exquisite skill. Abstract Expression is just one way of releasing, exploring and communicating the complexities of life. This biographyh of de Kooning is remarkable in its thorough examination of the life of one of the great characters of the century and remarkable for its ability to make the act of painting a physical and psychological experience we, the readers, can understand. I, for one, dread facing long books because I am a slow reader, but, in this case, I couldn't put the book down -- as we say. It is a great read, it is based on serious research, it could not be more immediate in terms of pleasure. It's a great read,. If this reviewer wants to bring God and morality into this book, I think any god, including his, would be proud of such a searching mind and talent, de Kooning would represent man's higher nature in all its soul searching, in failures and success. I am giving this book to most people on my Christmas list!
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A remarkable biography 12 Mar 2005
By Michael J. Fanelli - Published on
I found de Kooning: An American Master to be one the most colorful and interesting biographies I have ever spent time with. The authors' discussion of de Kooning's art is accessible and insightful and woven into the context of his life and relationships. I particularly valued the authors' discussions of de Kooning's relationships with women, which so powerfully influenced his art and are fascinating in their own right. In addition, the authors' discussion of the rise of the New York school of abstract expressionism provided a rich and informative perspective (at least for those largely uninitiated in art history, like me) in tracing de Kooning's own ascent. Moreover, the book is wonderfully written, never dull.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars True Grit 13 Nov 2010
By Traveling Artist - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is an exhaustively researched and detailed account written in a way that draws the reader into de Kooning's struggle on a daily basis. For all of its 630 pages, it was a real page turner - I could hardly wait to see what was going to happen next.

It is a powerful tale of a childhood of poverty, neglect and abuse in Rotterdam, Holland, from which he escapes first by attending a traditional academy of art at night while working as a decorative artist, and second by stowing away on a freighter bound for America at the age of 22, where for years afterward he would be an illegal alien beset by the anxieties of that status. He spends a decade as a commercial artist in New York before deciding to devote himself entirely to his painting, a choice he makes in the depths of the Great Depression by quitting his day job. There follow two decades of obsessive and disciplined dedication to his painting in the face of self-doubt and grinding poverty with little recognition, capped by a year and a half struggle with just one painting, his disturbing and controversial Woman I. The following three decades of fame and fortune are overshadowed by more self-doubt, intermittent ridicule and dismissal at the hands of the art world, topped off with repeated bouts of catastrophic binge drinking.

Through it all, he remains stubbornly resistant to the siren call of the artistic fashions that he has created and repeatedly veers off track at the height of success to pursue yet another difficult vector. The tale is lubricated with a constant flow of beautiful and exotic women who are caught up in his spell but always (and often to their chagrin) remain subordinate to his painting. His modesty and generosity towards other artists are characteristics, I think, not usually seen in artists who compete and succeed at this level. The many artists who are his mentors, friends and acolytes include: Hans Hofmann, Franz Klein, Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollack, Fairfield Porter, Robert Rauschenberg and Mark Rothko.

As he slips into the long decline of Alzheimer's toward the end of the 1970s, the story becomes increasingly tragi-comic, headlined by a shop-a-holic wife and his art dealer who are interested in keeping de Kooning isolated at his studio on Long Island (and his condition from the press) while encouraging him to continue painting at the highest output of his career (the $300,000 per painting price tag may be a factor here). They are aided in this by well meaning assistants who lay out his brushes, mix his paints, turn the canvases for him, and even start the drawings for his final paintings. The good guy in the white hat standing against these darker forces is his long-time lawyer and friend, himself succumbing to Parkinsons's. Included in this farce are forged signatures on de Kooning prints (the attorney in the white hat discovers this fraud and stops the presses) and a modified will, among other hijinks. More or less on the sidelines is his daughter (not by his wife) who is squeaking by on a $25,000 per month allowance (this is the early 80s when $25K is a lot of money). It is a race against time, but de Kooning does seem to float above the melee as he completes his last paintings in the late 1980s.

The soap opera briefly outlined in the foregoing paragraph notwithstanding, for anyone who doubts the artistic commitment of the Abstract Expressionists in general, and de Kooning in particular, this Pulitzer Prize winning biography promises to be a fascinating revelation; and for those who have themselves done battle with their own aesthetic demons, a real inspiration.
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