IN REMEMBRANCE: WILLEM DE KOONING
March 19, 1997
Willem de Kooning, considered one of the greatest artists of his time and a pioneer in the abstract expressionist movement, died in East Hampton, NY. Judith Zilczer, curator of painting for the Hirshhorn Museum talks with Charlayne Hunter-Gault about the life and times of the "American Picasso."
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Willem De Kooning was born in the Netherlands at the turn of the century. But during his 92-year lifetime he came to be called an American Picasso, one of the most influential American artists of the 20th century.
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Willem de Kooning's Saturday Night, 1956.
Willem de Kooning's Woman, 1954
After coming to this country in 1926, he worked as a house and sign painter and later as a commercial artist. His first solo art exhibition was in 1948. From then on he dominated the avant garde scene as a founder of the abstract expressionist school of painting. Despite Alzheimer's Disease he worked into the 80's and the expedition of his late work is on tour right now.
Here with us to fill out the De Kooning picture is Judith Zilczer, curator of painting for the Hirshhorn Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Thanks for coming over. Tell us briefly what exactly abstract expressionism is and what Willem De Kooning did with it.
JUDITH ZILCZER, Hirshhorn Museum: Abstract expressionism is or was a movement that came to fruition after the Second World War in New York. A group of artists, of whom Willem De Kooning was one of the leaders, combined their interests with European modernism with their understanding of traditional painting and invested it with their kind of American energy. It was both abstract and expressive, hence, the term "abstract expressionism," which none of the artists accepted really as a term. It was applied to them by the critics of the time. And--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What did they call it?
JUDITH ZILCZER: Well, they just considered it painting. And De Kooning, himself, said painting is a way of living, and he was just doing what came naturally to him. It's also interesting that you mentioned that he was called the American Picasso because in formulating the abstract expressionist style they said De Kooning is the guy to beat. And he set out to beat Picasso.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, there are a lot of other founders of abstract expressionism, including--
JUDITH ZILCZER: Yes.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: --Jackson Pollack, whom De Kooning credits. But De Kooning was regarded as kind of a first among equals. What made his work so unique?
JUDITH ZILCZER: Well, a number of factors. Although he is identified with the abstract expressionist movement and he was great friends with those painters in New York, he was really an independent figure, and resisted classification throughout his career. He was also one of the best academically trained artists. He had formal training at the Rotterdam Academy before he came to New York, and he was naturally gifted. He was a great draftsman. He was capable of doing exquisite drawings, realistic drawings.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Let's take a look at a few of his works, and then you can tell us what makes these De Koonings De Koonings. We have one called "Excavation," which I think was done in 1950.
JUDITH ZILCZER: 1950.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And what's distinguishing about that?
JUDITH ZILCZER: Well, this is probably one of De Kooning's greatest masterpieces. It's the culmination of a series of paintings he began in the late--mid to late 1940's, abstract, black and white paintings, using primarily enamel paint, house painter's paint, and trying to capture the essence of his experience both internal and external, and people have said that the black and white abstractions evoke the gritty atmosphere of New York.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. And we have another one called "Woman #1."
JUDITH ZILCZER: Yes.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What was De Kooning about this?
JUDITH ZILCZER: Well, "Woman #1" is also quintessential De Kooning, and in these two paintings we see the great polarity in De Kooning's career in that he was both a great abstract painter and a great figurative painter. And "Woman #1" is a great sense of the whole tradition of western painting, of woman as an object of beauty, and it was a matter of some controversy when De Kooning exhibited the painting in New York in 1953.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Why?
JUDITH ZILCZER: Because to conservative critics it was considered ugly; that he had so brutalized the human figure, particularly the female form. And to the more progressive and avant garde critics it seemed to be a repudiation of all he had fought for in terms of avant garde painting and the repudiation of his role as an abstract painter.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And of course there was a lot of controversy always around him because of that, right?
JUDITH ZILCZER: Yes. And he was a very charismatic person personally and inspired a great deal of loyalty and affection among his friends in the New York art world. But he and Jackson Pollack were also something of rivals. And there were two circles, the De Kooning part of him and the Pollack part of him.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Maybe we can look at one more, "Ruth's Zowie," which was 1957.
JUDITH ZILCZER: Yes. This is another great abstract painting which you can see he becomes more colorful in the late 50's. And instead of evoking an urban environment, the painting evokes a kind of landscape. And landscape, particularly landscape of Long Island, was a source of inspiration for much of his later career.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And, of course, despite all the controversy, I mean, he achieved great fame and fortune. I think one of his latest paintings in ‘87 sold for $20 million.
JUDITH ZILCZER: Yes, that's true. The art market has certainly recognized his achievement, but I think his achievements surpasses how we might define it in economic terms--he was certainly one of the great painters of the 20th century.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And briefly, his greatest influence on the art world.
JUDITH ZILCZER: Well, certainly the black and white abstractions of the late 40's revolutionized New York painting, but I think he will be remembered not only for those but for the entire body of his work which is so rich in its diversity and in its beauty.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Well, as you said to us earlier, we can come to the Hirshhorn and see a lot of it.
JUDITH ZILCZER: The Hirshhorn has the largest public collection of his work.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you.
JUDITH ZILCZER: Thank you.