de Kooning: An American Master Paperback – Apr 4 2006
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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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
"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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.