Willem de Kooning

Paintings & sculptures from Dutch museums

28 Oct 2006 - 28 Jan 2007

Two former directors of Dutch museums died in the fall of 2005. Edy de Wilde, born in 1919, headed the Stedelijk Museum from 1963 to 1985 and Rudi Oxenaar, born in 1925, the Kröller-Müller Museum from 1963 to 1990. The exhibition Willem de Kooning, paintings and sculptures from Dutch public collections and the presentation Picture books from the collection of Rudi Oxenaar are a tribute to these men who were so important for modern art and who both, as board members, have been closely involved in the establishment and development of De Pont museum of contemporary art.

On July 18, 1926 Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) managed to board, as a stowaway, a British cargo ship headed for America with the help of an acquaintance named Leo Cohan. It was certainly not an ambition to become one of the most prominent painters of the twentieth century that drove him to do this. Actually, he had not expected to find artists at all in America; at that time, he said in a 1960 interview, painters did not even comply with his notion of modern man. To him, America was a place where one could get ahead by working hard. And he wanted to achieve that as a commercial artist, having been trained in Rotterdam at the Gidding brothers’ studio for interior decoration. How, at the end of a long and often difficult road, De Kooning became, during the 1950s, a major figure in the heroic generation of painters that gave American art an identity of its own for the first time is wonderfully described by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan in his biography (2004).

In the Netherlands that success was hardly noticed at first. On a trip to New York in 1949, then director of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum Willem Sandberg ignored the advice of his American colleagues and forwent the opportunity to visit De Kooning. When A.M. Hammacher, director of the Kröller-Müller Museum, did see him one year later, he was indeed quite impressed but unable to exhibit the work of De Kooning in the Netherlands. The painter had his Dutch debut in 1956 at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, where Rudi Oxenaar was then curator. In the exhibition 50 years of art in the USA, De Kooning was represented with three paintings. These drew little attention however. The first real acquaintance with the work of Willem de Kooning took place in 1968 with his major retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum. On this occasion the artist, by this time sixty-four years old, set foot on Dutch soil again for the first time and received, at the opening, the International Talens Prize from jury chairman Rudi Oxenaar.

De Wilde’s interest in the work of De Kooning dates back to the time when he was still director of the Van Abbemuseum. In 1959 he wrote his first letter to him, but it remained unanswered. In 1963 contact did come about while De Wilde was staying in New York; then he had just become director of the Stedelijk Museum. During that visit he must have seen De Kooning’s recent work Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point. The museum purchased this in 1964: the first painting of his to be acquired by a European museum and, to this day, one of his most beautiful works.
Until 1987, when De Kooning became increasingly affected by Alzheimer’s disease, De Wilde visited him at least once a year at his impressive, self-designed studio in Springs, on the outermost point of Long Island. Personal dealings with artists were of great importance to De Wilde; this is how he gained a sense of the work’s ‘intensity’, which was among the main criteria for quality in his view.

Intensity is a key word with the art of De Kooning. In order to translate sensory and emotional experiences into paintings that were a cross between abstraction and figuration, De Kooning took an intuitive approach, without clearly envisaging the end result. The strength of his paintings lies with the chemistry between the artist and the work in progress. During his visits, De Wilde also witnessed De Kooning’s characteristic way of working. The act of painting was rapid and brief; this was continually interrupted by longer periods of concentrated observation meant to elicit the next step, as it were, from the painting itself.

‘Willem de Kooning is unmistakably an American artist in terms of the vitality, the energy and the breadth of his approach (...) Yet his sensibilities and intellectual uncertainty, which are so characteristic of him, seem to have European origins,’ De Wilde wrote in 1983 for the exhibition catalogue of North Atlantic Light, a retrospective comprised of paintings from the period 1960-1983. While his themes – the woman, the landscape and a fusion of the two – had remained basically unchanged throughout the years on Long Island, De Kooning continued to seek new painterly solutions.

In other respects as well, he was receptive to new ideas. While spending time in Rome in 1969, he modelled his first figures in clay, sculptures no larger than a hand. In the years to follow, he kept his concern for this. Both irregular and schematic, these seem to be three-dimensional versions of the ‘blind’ drawings that De Kooning produced while watching television in the evening.

Thirteen of the sculptures cast in bronze were donated to the Stedelijk by the artist. Together with the eight paintings, several drawings and prints, this became a unique collection of his late work. The only other work in a Dutch public collection, The Cliff of the Palisade with Hudson River, can be found at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Like Rosy-Fingered Dawn, this gouache from 1963 is among De Kooning’s abstract portrayals of landscape. The work is dedicated to Leo Cohan, who had provided De Kooning with a hiding place in the engine room of the SS Shelley in 1926. In 1977 Cohan donated this work, in his name as well as that of Willem de Kooning, to the museum in Rotterdam, the city from which De Kooning had departed roughly fifty years before.

The works in this exhibition have been generously lent by the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.