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De Kooning: An American Master [Deckle Edge] [Hardcover]

Mark Stevens , Annalyn Swan
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

Nov. 9 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.

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From Publishers Weekly

This sweeping biography, 10 years in the making, chronicles in fastidious detail de Kooning's rise from his humble beginnings in Rotterdam to his fame as an abstract expressionist and his descent into alcoholism and Alzheimer's. Emigrating to New York in 1926, de Kooning (1904–1997) situated himself among fellow artists and role models like Arshile Gorky. In 1938, he met and later married painter Elaine Fried; the two remained married despite de Kooning's predilection for bed hopping. (An affair with Joan Ward resulted in a daughter, Lisa, and indeed, the authors spend more ink on de Kooning's womanizing than his art making.) In the early 1940s, de Kooning's work appeared in group shows; his first solo show was a commercial failure. The artist did not meet with real success until the 1950s, when his paintings Excavation and Woman 1 made him "first among equals" in the art world. Stevens, New York magazine's art critic, and Swan, a former senior arts editor at Newsweek, see in de Kooning's life the realization of classic stories—the triumph of the immigrant, the man consumed by his success, the nonexistence of life's second acts—and this comprehensive biography, which attempts to explain de Kooning's art through a careful catalogue of his personal life, is a must read for his admirers. Illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

It took de Kooning many years to achieve recognition, a sustained struggle given its full due in this unfailingly attentive biography, the first of this controversial American master. Distinguished critics Stevens and Swan are indefatigable in their factual chronicling, vivid in their characterization of an immense cast of colorful characters, measured in their psychological interpretations, and sharp in their explications of the visions and politics that drove New York's striving art world from 1926, when the handsome young Dutchman arrived as a stowaway, to his death in 1997. Stevens and Swan tell wild stories about de Kooning's part in the much mythologized Cedar Tavern-anchored, abstract-art heyday, and they cover in painful detail his many affairs and complicated marriage to the vivacious, talented, and pragmatic Elaine. But what is most valuable here is the light shed on de Kooning's rough Rotterdam childhood and early commercial art training, his insistence on painting vehement and unnerving portraits of women, and his mysterious last years at his Long Island studio. Here are rival artists, dueling critics, rampant promiscuity, heroic intentions, demoralizing poverty, heavy drinking, depression, and through it all de Kooning's quest for powerful and authentic expression. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Everything you've ever wanted to know... Sept. 13 2011
By Jill Meyer HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
about Willem deKoonig!. Authors Swan and Stevens have written a huge book, which is not only a good look at the Dutch-born deKoonig, but also almost a tutorial in the times he lived, as well as the people and places that shaped his life.

"Bill" (as he preferred to be called after he emigrated to the US from his native Holland) deKooning began his career as a draftsman in Holland but turned to painting when he emigrated. Born into a family who might put the "Battling Bickersons" to shame, deKooning lived a personal life which resulted in his having one wife, numerous girlfiends, and one illegitimate daughter. He was a major drinker and often went on binges. But his life "issues" were always secondary to his life's work - painting. Born in 1904 and moving to the US at the age of 18, he spent years toiling in artist-obscurity, until his "discovery" by the powers-that-be of the art world in 1950. The last thirty or so years of his life he enjoyed much acclaim for his work, even as he descended into an Alzheimer's world.

Swan and Stevens have produced an amazingly well-written book about deKooning. They cover all aspects of his life in one very readable and enjoyable package of 723 pages. I think Swan and Stevens won a Pulitzer prize for Biography for this book.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  50 reviews
70 of 74 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Master Dec 9 2004
By Driver9 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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.
25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Totally Absorbing and Masterful Book Nov. 24 2004
By Ellen Pall - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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."
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars de Kooning Nov. 24 2004
By Alice Rose George - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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!
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A remarkable biography March 12 2005
By Michael J. Fanelli - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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.
20 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Zowie! Nov. 25 2004
By Jacob Young - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The New York abstract expressionists have been written to death. The Village, the Cedar, the Hamptons-is there anything we don't know? As it turns out, yes.

This big, fat bio of Willem de Kooning takes all the familiar people, places and ideas and makes them pop up off the page. As they tell de Kooning's story, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan lead you through downtown New York the '40s, '50s and '60s, when rebellion, sex and booze helped fuel perhaps the most modern of artistic movements. This is intellectual history, sure. But the depth of the research and reporting in the book puts you in the room as things are happening-painting, arguing, affairs-in a way that few biographies can.

But the book isn't just a long party sequence: You see and hear de Kooning struggling with his art, his celebrity, and, ultimately, his integrity as well. And then there's his long sad decline; after a White House dinner he had to be reminded that the man he had sat next to was President Ronald Reagan.

In the full disclosure department, I have worked with the authors. Even if I hadn't, I would still press "de Kooning" on my friends.
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