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Icon of Abstract Expressionism De Kooning Dies

March 20, 1997|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Willem de Kooning, the Abstract Expressionist considered by many the world's greatest living artist, died Wednesday at 92.

He died in his studio on New York's Long Island, where he had continued to paint until recent years despite having Alzheimer's disease.

Although De Kooning suffered, his painting remarkably did not. He seldom recognized old friends, but many critics and connoisseurs of art believed he did some of the best work of his long life as his memory and mind apparently were failing.

By 1989 he had deteriorated to a point where his only child, Lisa de Kooning, won court appointment along with attorney John Eastman as conservators of his person and estate, including a vast number of his paintings, which have fetched as much as $20 million apiece.

That was the year De Kooning's Alzheimer's was diagnosed, shortly after the death of his wife, artist and art professor Elaine Fried de Kooning.

Under the direction of his daughter and lawyers, nurses and attendants guided De Kooning daily through the acts of washing, dressing, eating and a session on an exercise bicycle, and then steered him into his East Hampton studio. There, until he finally ceased painting in the early 1990s, he returned to some form of awareness, mixing his own colors and applying them to canvas. When he tired, assistants led him away, and he spent the rest of the day sitting and staring at the floor or out the window.

De Kooning's 90th birthday in 1994 prompted the National Gallery of Art in Washington to mount a retrospective of his work. The painter's lifelong output, commented Times art critic Christopher Knight, was "a superlative achievement."

There was some fear that De Kooning's work beginning in the late 1980s must be less valuable and that his family was staging a hoax to sell his latest paintings at a huge sum.

But Knight and other critics also embraced a current show dubbed "Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings," which was at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1995 and is now winding up at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

"There are pictures in this show," Knight wrote, "that are as flat-out satisfying as any abstract paintings you could name."

De Kooning's mental decline was a marked contrast for the vigorous Dutch immigrant, who went from commercial artist to house painter to pioneering Abstract Expressionist and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Along with Jackson Pollock, who died in 1956, De Kooning was considered the greatest of the Abstract Expressionists because he not only remained true to that post-World War II discipline but continually pushed it in new directions. He was prolific and built a huge body of work over five decades, which became the genre's prime example of its trademark spontaneity and action painting. He also introduced monumental scale to contemporary art (his largest painting was "Excavation" at 80 by 100 inches).

Incorporating touches from his good friend Arshile Gorky and Pablo Picasso, De Kooning led his fellows in applying paint in a spontaneous and self-expressive way to form an abstract, or nonrepresentational, composition. But De Kooning alone of the Abstract Expressionists made the human figure a central theme of his work.

He did much of his original work in black and white--huge black paintings with large white linear drawings. But he switched to bright colors when his purse permitted buying the colored paints, infusing his work with light as well as strong color.

Kathleen Kearns, writing for the New Republic, likened his paintings to "glimpses from a car window, often elusive. The mouth of a figure may be almost simplistically clear, while cheeks, hair and hands are suggestive streaks of paint."

De Kooning's prolific productivity as an octogenarian, had he been capable of remembering his painting from one day to the next, might have surprised him. He had once marveled over how Titian and Michelangelo were able to continue to paint despite advanced age.

"I can't figure out how those old guys kept at it, kept painting the way they did," he told an interviewer in 1983. "Titian, he was 90, with arthritis so bad they had to tie on his paintbrushes. But he kept on painting virgins in that luminous light, like he'd just heard about them. Those guys had everything in place, the virgin and God and the technique, but they kept it up like they were still looking for something. It's very mysterious."

"Maybe if I stop," he joked, "they'll put me in a box."

Willem de Kooning was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, on April 24, 1904. His father, Leendert, was a wine and beer distributor who won custody of young Willem when his parents separated about five years after his birth. His mother, Cornelia Nobel de Kooning, who ran a tough seaman's bar, snatched the boy back soon after. Many art historians cite her and her abrupt retrieval of Willem as the basis of his devastating and controversial series titled "Woman," which he painted in the early 1950s.

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