Success and Fame Increase, 1967-1985

De Kooning with Paul McCartney, 1984. Art News photoshoot.

By 1967, de Kooning was achieving great success and notoriety, accompanied by much pressure due to his need to produce, coupled with his increasing alcoholism and personal chaos. Walker and Company published 24 of his charcoal drawings. He also joined the prestigious New York gallery, M. Knoedler and Company, in establishing a contemporary art department. A contract negotiated by Lee Eastman guaranteed de Kooning a $100,000 annual fee, giving the gallery first-refusal rights for his work. This inspired him to produce paintings with gusto, and on August 4, he presented 22 paintings in addition to the original 17 he had provided them. Included in the collection were several of the Women on the Sign works.

Joan Ward brought Lisa to live with de Kooning in the Springs that year, and de Kooning devoted himself to drawing. M. Knoedler and Company opened his first exhibition on November 10, showing Woman Sag Harbour, Woman Accobana, Woman Springs, and Woman, Montauk, along with other works. De Kooning declined attendance at the opening and other parties, and the exhibition met with mostly negative reviews, even though there were some sales. In typical fashion, he dealt with the rejection with increased alcohol abuse and was in Southampton Hospital by the end of the year.

In 1968, de Kooning traveled to Europe, accompanied by Ward and Lisa and his friend Leo Cohan. He made the journey to Holland, his birthplace, for a major retrospective which opened September 18 at Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Although he attended the show, his anxiety caused him to leave quickly, accompanied by his sister Marie and his step-brother, Koos Lassoy. On September 19, they visited their mother, who was by then quite fragile. His mother would later die on October 8. De Kooning drank heavily that Thanksgiving, and he and Ward were involved in a car crash, which they survived.

The Museum of Modern Art held a de Kooning retrospective of 147 paintings, pastels, collages, and drawings from March 5 - April 26, 1969, which had mixed reviews. That spring, de Kooning, Ward and Lisa began renovations on their home in the Springs, with de Kooning designing a cupboard in the ceiling. Lisa later referred to it as “the door that leads to nowhere.”

That summer de Kooning went to Italy, taking Susan Brockman with him; of course, Ward was not happy with the arrangement. Upon his return, he stayed with Brockman and visited Ward and Lisa. He also began sculpting and hired David Christian to build a large experimental version of one of his smaller works, Seated Woman.

Seated Woman, 1952. Pencil pastel on oil paper. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

De Kooning traveled to Japan in 1970. After returning, he began working in lithography that summer, producing Love to Wakako and Weekend at Mr. and Mrs. Krishner. In August, he began an affair with Emilie (Mimi) Kilgore. This, of course, was disturbing to both Ward and Mimi’s husband, John Kilgore, but de Kooning declared that he was in love.

Mother and Child, 1970. Lithograph (set of 44), printed at Hollanders Workshop, New York. 71.1x105.4cm (sheet); 56.2x80.4cm (image).

Untitled (Sculpture), 1972. Bronze with brown patina, 376x641.1x203.2cm. Conceived from smaller form in 1969, cast in 1984 edition of 7, 2 proofs. Locations: Matthew Marks Gallery, NY; Walker Art Center, MN.

In 1971, Clam Digger was sculpted, and in August, de Kooning left the Accabonac house and moved back into his studio. As the year drew to a close, the Museum of Modern Art presented Seven by de Kooning.

Mimi Kilgore accompanied de Kooning to the Venice Biennial in June 1972. In October, his final exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery was held, in accordance with the terms of the settlement of his legal issues. A stipulation stated that de Kooning set the prices of the pieces, and he set unusually high values to insure that few would actually sell.

By the end of the year, Lisa had moved to New York, staying with her father briefly before taking an apartment at 3rd Avenue and 10th Street. She taught at the Head Start Program and then took work as an adoption coordinator, but she frequently spent time with the Hell’s Angels, whose headquarters were nearby. Through friends, de Kooning kept tabs on her.

The binges continued; and de Kooning was admitted to Southampton Hospital again in February 1973, having caused serious damage to his liver and pancreas. He spent the latter part of the year in rehab.

1974 saw conditions improve for the artist. A traveling exhibition of his lithographs was organized by Fourcade, Droll, Inc., and the tour continued throughout the United States until 1977. Dane Dixon, also a heavy drinker, became de Kooning’s full-time assistant after John McMahon left. And in September, Woman V was sold to the Australian National Gallery, bringing in $850,000. At the time, it was the highest amount ever received for a work by a living American artist.

De Kooning visited Japan and Paris in 1975, and upon his return, he proposed to Mimi Kilgore. She declined the proposal on the grounds that too many people would be hurt; however, the relationship continued. De Kooning produced 20 works within six months, and in October, he exhibited at Fourcade, Droll, Inc.

The Hirshhorn Museum and the U.S. Information Agency organized a major traveling exhibition of de Kooning’s work in 1976. The tour was set for Europe and included eleven cities in Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and East Berlin. Xavier Fourcade, now de Kooning’s exclusive art dealer, mounted a showing of 12 new works, which met with favorable reviews.

By 1977, Elaine de Kooning quit drinking. She enlisted the help of her friend, Eugene Tritter, in bringing de Kooning to Alcoholics Anonymous. An addiction to Valium, however, further complicated any attempts at attaining sobriety.

Untitled, 1977. Oil and enamel on paint on canvas, 60x48in. Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.

The 1978 exhibition of Willem de Kooning in East Hampton, which ran from February 10 - April 23, was a hit at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, including a rave review by Hilton Kramer in The New York Times. In May, a financial settlement with Elaine enabled her to resign from her teaching position at the University of Georgia. Also that month, the American Art at Mid-Century: The Subjects of the Artist exhibit opened the new East Building at the National Gallery in Washington and featured de Kooning. In July, however, he again went on a bender after the deaths of several friends, including Harold Rosenberg and Thomas Hess.

Willem de Kooning stopped painting in 1979. He wrote a final letter to Mimi and continued drinking, despite Elaine’s attempts to help him stop.

The 1980s, however, brought changes and an increase in productivity. Tom Ferrara worked as his assistant from 1980 to 1987. Lisa built a home on the grounds of her father’s studio in 1981, and de Kooning revised his will, including Elaine as equal beneficiary with Lisa. That spring, he took up painting again.

The February 1982 issue of Art News published Avis Berman’s article Willem de Kooning: I Am Only Halfway Through. The cover featured a photograph of de Kooning sitting next to Paul McCartney, taken by McCartney’s wife, Linda Eastman, daughter of de Kooning’s lawyer, Lee Eastman. In it, Berman made a veiled reference to de Kooning’s faltering memory.

Art News Cover, de Kooning and Paul McCartney, February 1982, Photo by Linda Eastman McCartney

In March 1982, Dustin Hoffman filmed a documentary entitled De Kooning on de Kooning in March, part of the Strokes of Genius series; de Kooning attended the premier. He also attended a White House dinner honoring Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in April. And from March 17 - May 1, his New Paintings: 1981-1982 exhibition was held at the Fourcade, Droll Gallery.

With the help of staff assistants, de Kooning completed 54 paintings in 1983. He was encouraged by Fourcade and Eastman to authorize enlarged photographs of his sculptures, and Elaine de Kooning authorized a new edition of one of de Kooning's Rome pieces, Untitled #2, which was cast by the Gemini foundry in California in sterling silver in an edition of six. In May, art dealer Allan Stone purchased Two Women for $1.2 million. Willem de Kooning: Drawings, Paintings, Sculpture opened at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art on December 15.

1984 was another prolific year with de Kooning finishing 51 paintings. With neither his knowledge nor permission, Elaine’s brother, Conrad Fried, filmed de Kooning painting. Although he was commissioned by St. Peter’s Church in New York City to paint a triptych, the congregation complained and the work was eventually taken down. The original hope had been that a donor would meet the price of $900,000 for Hallelujah.

Composition for Lisa, 1984. Color lithograph, 17 5/8 x 23 ¼ in. Edition of 250, signed. Image location Puccio Gallery, New York.

Next: Final Years, 1985-1997