Abstract Expressionist Work Takes Shape, 1944-1948



In 1944, the Cincinnati Art Museum featured Willem de Kooning in the Abstract and Surrealist Art in the United States exhibit held from February 8 - March 12. The show later traveled to the Denver Art Museum (March 26 - April 23), Seattle Art Museum (May 7 - June 10), the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (June - July), and the San Francisco Museum of Art (July). After closing, the exhibition moved to the Mortimer Brandt Gallery in New York, arranged by Sidney Janis. In 1944, Janis’ book, by the same title, was published.


Woman, 1944. Oil and charcoal on canvas, 116.8x81.3cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In January 1945, de Kooning’s painting, The Netherlands, won a competition sponsored by the Container Corporation of America. That autumn, Elaine de Kooning sailed to Provincetown, MA with physician and friend Bill Hardy. De Kooning was less than pleased with this, but his work at the time includes colorful, biomorphic forms, such as Pink Angels.

That year, de Kooning’s painting, The Wave, was shown in the Autumn Salon at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century exhibition. By the mid 1940s, however, he was experiencing economic challenges, exhibiting in only a handful of shows, and his paintings were being purchased almost exclusively by a small circle of friends who patronized his work. Elaine was also struggling, writing ballet reviews for the New York Herald Tribune and painting. One of her pieces, a self-portrait, was sold to her sister for $20.

At this time, de Kooning declared existentialism to be “in the air” but stated that his work would be the same whether or not this was the case. In the spring of 1946, Marie Marchowsky commissioned de Kooning to create a backdrop based on his recent painting, Judgment Day, for her dance performance, Labyrinth, in the New York Times Hall. He collaborated with Milton Resnick using cooked fish glue and cheap hardware pigments for materials.


Pink Angels, 1945. Oil and charcoal on canvas, 52x40 in. Frderick R. Weisman Foundation, Los Angeles, CA.

By April, de Kooning had become extremely depressed. When Marchowsky threw him a birthday celebration, he arrived in ragged, paint-splattered clothing, looking homeless and sitting in a corner nursing a drink. By late summer, things began to improve, and he rented a storefront studio at 85 4th Avenue, between 10th and 11th Street.

His marriage was still rocky, and de Kooning began spending increasing amounts of time in his studio, only occasionally retiring to his apartment at night. Elaine was absorbed in her own pursuits, and his sole emotional support came from friends, many of whom lived near the studio. Among his friends were Franz Kline, Milton Resnick, Hans Hofmann, John Ferren, and Conrad Marca-Relli.

In November 1946, de Kooning wrote to his father saying that he wanted to see him and explaining that he was happily married and satisfied with his life as a struggling artist. His father’s reply included encouragement to find more lucrative employment.

In 1946, de Kooning assisted Charles Egan in opening an art gallery on 63 East 57th Street, and on April 12, 1948, Egan gave de Kooning his first one-man show. The exhibition consisted of the black-and-white compositions and included the aforementioned paintings. Extended, due to lack of attendance in its opening days, the show eventually drew a good crowd, primarily of young artists. Painting sold to the Museum of Modern Art for $700, but it was the only sale. Nevertheless, critics responded favorably to the show.

In October 1947, Willem de Kooning produced a black-and-white painting for the premier issue of Tiger’s Eye. The magazine editors, John and Ruth Stephan, insisted upon entitling it Orestes, a name Elaine found inappropriate as de Kooning and his art were not associated with Greek mythology. He did, however, continue to paint black-and-white abstracts throughout 1947 and 1948, the medium being a boon as it eliminated the expense of purchasing colors. Many critics consider these paintings, which include Painting, Village Square, and Dark Pond, to be his greatest works.


Untitled, 1949. Black enamel on graph paper, 55.6x75.9cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

De Kooning took a summer job teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1948. Elaine accompanied him taking classes there. Here, de Kooning began work on Asheville, which he finished after returning to New York in the fall after giving the position to Franz Kline, as Kline needed the income. While de Kooning was at Black Mountain College, his close friend, Arshile Gorky, hung himself at the age of 44.

The October 11, 1948 issue of Life magazine featured an article more than 16 pages long called “A Life Round Table on Modern Art”, wherein fifteen critics and connoisseurs discussed the discipline. As the article referred to “five young extremists”, de Kooning and his works, Painting, Village Square, and Dark Pond, were highlighted.

Near the end of 1948, Willem and Elaine separated, and shortly thereafter, he met Mary Abbott and began an intermittent affair with her, which lasted for several years. During this time, he painted Woman I.

Next: Prolific Years: Exhibitions and Alcoholism, 1949-1967