Final Years, 1985-1997




Willem de Kooning, 1985. Photo, East Hampton, NY.

De Kooning produced 63 paintings in 1985. He was, however, beginning to show signs of Alzheimer’s and required help with menial tasks. Elaine changed his color palettes, and his assistants began mixing the tubes of paints. Among the paintings produced during this time were Untitled XIII and Untitled XX. His last show at Fourcade, Droll, Exhibition of de Kooning’s Recent Work from 1984-1985, was held in October.

In 1986, de Kooning completed 43 more works. The Anthony d’Offay Gallery in London displayed Exhibition of Willem de Kooning’s Work From 1983-1986. The following year, he produced 26 paintings. Although his eyesight was failing, he continued to paint. By now, he was working from old sketches that his assistants projected onto blank canvases so that he could “fill in” areas.


Untitled XIII, 1985. Oil on canvas, 203x177cm. Cleveland Museum of Art.

That year, Pink Lady sold for $3.63 million. Xavier Fourcade , who had sold $9.3 million in the works of de Kooning, died of AIDS. The news was kept from de Kooning as Elaine thought it would upset him. Several years earlier, Elaine was diagnosed with lung cancer, and by 1987, her health worsened dramatically.

De Kooning produced another 27 paintings in 1988. Realizing the state of her health, Elaine encouraged de Kooning to change his will, making Lisa sole beneficiary. Due to the value of his work, Eastman blocked these attempts, threatening to make public de Kooning’s deteriorating mental state. The matter was dropped, and Eastman remained executor. Later that year, Elaine was admitted to Sloan-Kettering for an unsuccessful round of radiation treatment. On February 1, 1989, Elaine died at the age of 70. De Kooning was never told of her death.

Lisa de Kooning and Lee Eastman filed a court petition, declaring de Kooning mentally incompetent and incapable of managing his affairs. Eastman attempted to become sole conservator of the estate, and he alleged that Lisa had mismanaged her father’s money. His appeal was rejected by the courts, and the two became co-conservators. In May, de Kooning entered Southampton Hospital for a hernia operation; in July, he underwent prostate surgery.

Willem de Kooning stopped painting in 1990. A mini-retrospective, Willem de Kooning: An Exhibition of Paintings, was held at the Salander O’Reilly Galleries from September - October. De Kooning/Dubuffet: The Woman exhibition at the Pace Gallery ran from December 1990 through January 1991.

In May 1993, Jennifer McLaughlin, de Kooning’s final assistant left. October 21, Willem de Kooning from the Hirshhorn Museum Collection opened at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Willem de Kooning: Paintings was exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington from May - September 5, 1994. And in 1996, the Rotterdam Academy, where de Kooning had studied as a young man, officially changed its name to The Willem de Kooning Academy.

On March 19, 1997, at the age of 92, Willem de Kooning died. Some 300 people attended the funeral, including Ruth Kligman, Susan Brockman, Molly Barnes, and Emilie Kilgore. His daughter, Lisa, was the guest speaker.