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de Kooning: An American Master

by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swann

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de Kooning: An American Master
How is it that I managed to graduate from a four-year art college with zero appreciation for Willem de Kooning's profound and disquieting work? Although it's possible I missed out on American Expressionism day in Modern Art History, a more likely answer is that prior to the publication of de Kooning: An American Master, de Kooning's life and works were simply overshadowed by Pollock's.

But no longer. In de Kooning: An American Master, Stevens and Swann present de Kooning as a profoundly influential American artist who lived a rich and contradictory life. In a book brimming with personal detail the authors tell the uniquely American story of a working class Dutch immigrant who became an international success after years of struggle, failure and persistence in New York.
De Kooning painted in several styles throughout his long life so it's impossible to sum his career in a single iconic image. His Women paintings are disturbing amalgamations of fleshy, drippy paint. They depict female figures with mask-like faces, gashes and gnashing teeth. Some appear dismembered and unlike Pollock's drip paintings (which have become a cliché for American Expressionism) they retain their power to shock. The paintings from de Kooning's black and white series of the mid-1940's are civilized by comparison, perfectly composed melodies of black and white enamel paint. Later paintings include rapturous, abstract landscapes that explode with color.
Although I'm not a fan of de Kooning's Women, after reading de Kooning: An American Master, I concede their power. By weaving details about de Kooning's work habits with stories from his personal life the authors create a tender portrait of a man who struggled all his life to create meaning with paint. At the same time they tell the exhilarating story of the emergence of mid-century American artists on the international scene after years of neglect.

De Kooning an American Master won the Pulitzer in 2005. If that's not enough of a recommendation for you let me end with this. I loved this book because it made me fall in love with de Kooning who painted beautifully, bravely and with hope throughout his difficult life.

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