Willem de Kooning

American, born The Netherlands, 1904-1997

“The texture of experience is prior to everything else.” –Willem de Kooning1

Sculpture emerged in Willem de Kooning’s practice in 1969, following decades of painting that had established him as a key Abstract Expressionist artist. During a short trip to Rome, Italy, his friend, the sculptor Herzl Emmanuel, invited de Kooning to work in clay at his studio, resulting in 13 small figures (Untitled #1-12), which were subsequently cast in bronze. With the encouragement of Henry Moore, who thought these small, hand-sized abstractions would benefit from enlargement, de Kooning spent the next five years exploring both the enlargement of a few of these small works and the creation of new sculptures.

With Clamdigger and other sculptures from this period, de Kooning explored the gestural possibilities of a new medium with the same boldness he brought to painting. He loved the wetness of clay, as it allowed him even greater freedoms to change and revise work in progress, and the sweeping gestures familiar from his work as a painter took on a new physicality and intensity when rendered in a three-dimensional form. From 1969 to 1974, de Kooning focused on sculpture as well as printmaking, collaborative processes requiring the input of others to come to fruition. Although he never stopped painting in these years, his sculptural work provided a creative and experimental outlet. The large abstract canvases of the late 1970s owe something of their scale and grandeur to de Kooning’s intensive investigation of materiality and physical presence. The enlargements of de Kooning’s small sculptures continued into the 1980s. Over 9 feet high, Seated Woman, based on Untitled #12, translates life-size and intimate impressions of the artist’s hand into hulking planes and sweeping transitions.

Born in Rotterdam, Netherlands, de Kooning attended the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts from age 12,  simultaneously apprenticing at a design firm. After emigrating to the United States in 1927, de Kooning held various commercial art jobs and worked in the mural and easel divisions of the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project. From the 1940s onward, de Kooning explored the limits of representation and abstraction, especially through his evocative paintings of women.  His first solo exhibition in 1948 at Egan Gallery in New York established his standing as a major artist of the time, and his gestural approach to painting attracted legions of followers in the years that followed. His work has been the subject of many exhibitions, most recently a large retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2011.   The artist died on March 19, 1997 in East Hampton, New York, where he had settled in 1963. In 1998, the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts was renamed the Willem de Kooning Academie in his honor.

Additional Resources

Elderfield, John. De Kooning:  A Retrospective.  New York:  The Museum of Modern Art, 2011.

Zilczer, Judith.  A Way of Living: The Art of Willem de Kooning. London: Phaidon, 2014.

The Willem de Kooning Foundation


Willem de Kooning discusses his paintings of women




1David Anfam, Abstract Expressionism (New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 1990), 150.



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