A Way of Living: The Art of Willem de Kooning, by Judith Zilczer, Phaidon, RRP£59.95/$100, 288 pages

Willem de Kooning’s ‘Woman I’ (1950-52)
Willem de Kooning’s ‘Woman I’ (1950-52) © MoMA/Scala

As postwar art recedes into history, its giant figures stand out more starkly. In American painting, the status of Willem de Kooning, last of the abstract expressionists to die, in 1997, is outstripping that of everyone else.

His career was not only longer, but more unexpected and contrary, less dependent on a signature style, than those of his peers Jackson Pollock the Dripper, Barnett Newman the Zipper, or Mark Rothko, the high priest of transcendent rectangles. De Kooning is as rowdy and irreverent as a pop artist, but tuned into European modernism in ways that give depth and emotional richness. By refusing to conform to ideals of abstraction, dissolving gaps between figurative and non-figurative, he appears immediate and present within today’s non-hierarchical approaches.

Not that he is easy. A show at New York’s Gagosian Gallery last winter reignited the debate over his old-age work: is it exquisite simplicity, or the outpourings of an alcoholic, demented fool? There is as yet no catalogue raisonnée; however, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography (2005) and MoMA’s landmark retrospective (2011-12) have in the past decade defined the scholarly terrain, to which Judith Zilczer’s sumptuously illustrated monograph forms an insightful contribution.

Zilczer worked with de Kooning at Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum in the 1980s, when the artist had just embarked on his spare, streamlined abstractions in primary colours. How, Zilczer wonders, “could a painter known for an earthy and visceral brand of expressionism have created works of such surpassing grace?” Her achievement in A Way of Living is to connect, aesthetically and biographically, every phase of his protean production, united by what she sees as a romantic imperative: de Kooning’s mantra that “painting – any kind of painting, any style of painting – to be painting at all, in fact – is a way of living, a style of living . . . It is exactly in its uselessness that it is free.”

De Kooning’s bid for freedom came in 1926, when, intoxicated by western movies, he abandoned a career as a commercial artist in his native Rotterdam to stow away on a freighter crossing the Atlantic. In New York he encountered modern painting and “met a lot of artists – but then I met Gorky . . . He had an extraordinary gift for hitting the nail on the head; remarkable. So I immediately attached myself to him.”

Gorky’s lyrical biomorphic forms were the bridge between European surrealism and American abstraction. His influence on de Kooning persisted from early figurative works through the late 1940s calligraphic black paintings, referencing an urban detritus of shadows, stains, pavement textures observed on night walks through Manhattan, to the grand intricate array of deformed anatomical fragments, glinting teeth, mouths and eyes in the breakthrough painting “Attic” (1949). De Kooning had wanted to call this “Interior” but his wife Elaine “said ‘no husband of mine is going to call a painting “Interior” – then think of a specific room’ and Bill said ‘Attic, because you put everything in it’”.

By then, Gorky was dead and de Kooning, a terrific draughtsman, was professing a wish to paint like Ingres and Soutine at the same time. The vociferous, ferociously grinning “Woman” paintings take whiplash lines and classical rigour from the former, and unrestrained gestures, expressive distortion and tactile handling from the latter – all in a vernacular American pin-up idiom. On an extraordinarily fortunate studio visit, the inspired critic Meyer Schapiro rescued “Woman 1” (1950-52) from the scrapheap; the series shot de Kooning into the New York vanguard. Zilczer positions it well in the context of mid-century cultural battles – American ownership of abstraction, action painting, incipient gender wars – though perceiving also the Dutch, anti-idealising robustness of the works.

Willem de Kooning in his studio in 1950
de Kooning in his studio in 1950 © Rudy Burckhardt/DACS

“To see Bill on the street downtown was to witness a vision whose aura eclipsed even his own shadow,” Robert Rauschenberg recalled of this period, and for a time de Kooning himself was in thrall to the abstract expressionist myth. At a party at Franz Kline’s, he recalled, the room was small and warm and “Pollock looked at this guy and said ‘You need a little more air’ and he punched a window out with his fist. At the moment it was so delicious – so belligerent. Like children we broke all the windows. To do things like that. Terrific.”

Soon, though, de Kooning saw that “the very fact that it is booming now, this actually is on its way out”. In 1960 he named a magnificent yellow/pink abstraction “Door to the River”: if the canvas is the door and paint the river, given life and flow by the artist, the title revealed an “instinct somehow . . . as if that was my escape route, my future”. He left New York for Springs, a hamlet near East Hampton, Long Island, which became his Giverny in landscapes whose undulating colour chords evoke water, surf, sky, sand, grass, quivering with sensuality: “Woman”, “Sag Harbor”, “Whose Name Was Writ in Water” and “Screams of Children Come from Seagulls”.

Zilczer’s analysis links such great works – where one feels the force of de Kooning’s conviction that “flesh is the reason oil paint was invented” – with the anti-corporeal late paintings. These remain windswept, but north Atlantic atmosphere yields to an ideal white studio light in glacially smooth canvases of swirling lines, curving forms, suggesting the precision of figure skating, which de Kooning had enjoyed in childhood. Dizzying loops evoke body fragments too, and the caricaturist’s zany humour persists – in “The Cat’s Meow”, for instance – but suffusing it is an ethereal luminosity. De Kooning had always called Picasso “the guy to beat”; now the floating, laconic quality of Matisse frees his spatial structures.

Emile Zola defined art as “a corner of nature seen through a temperament”. Zilczer reckons de Kooning inverted the formula to “create visions of a temperament seen through nature. That he did so for nearly 60 years is testimony to his way of living.” Her empathetic, generous account, which wears its learning lightly but demonstrates incisive thought, becomes first port of call for an overview of this most alluring, influential, still controversial artist.

Jackie Wullschlager is the FT’s chief art critic

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