The Early Drawings of
Willem de Kooning
"Nature then, is just nature. I admit I am very impressed by it. The attitude that nature is chaotic and that the artist puts order into it is a very absurd point of view, I think. All that we can do . . . is put some order in ourselves."
Such was the sentiment expressed by Abstract Expressionist Willem De Kooning in the midst of his Trans/Formation lecture in 1950. While the lecture was filled with additional insights from the artist, this brief excerpt in many regards speaks volumes about the artist on its own, particularly regarding his early years as an artist.
Often when we think of de Kooning, abstract and animated compositions most likely come to mind, and rightly so: alongside contemporaries such as Jackson Pollock, de Kooning ranks among the most influential artistic figures working in the mid-20th century. What some might not realize, though, is that de Kooning began his career ensconced in a more traditional, academic technique. It is this evolution from academic to abstract that is one of the most compelling aspects of de Kooning's career, and it is arguably though his drawings that this transition is best illustrated.
Born in Holland in 1904, de Kooning first trained as an artist while serving as an apprentice to a commercial design firm. He immigrated to North America at the age of 22 by one of the most fantastical means possible: as a stowaway on a transatlantic freighter. He set up his studio in New York in 1927 and envisioned a career as a commercial artist (and, to help pay the bills, house painter). This flair for commercial design perhaps resonates in his early drawings, such as Dish with Jugs (above) (1921) and The Kiss (below) (1925), wherein the study of each form reveals an exercise in shadow and dimension. As time progressed in New York, though, de Kooning began to feel the influence of a rising generation of modern artists. Associating with innovators such as Arshile Gorky and Stuart Davis, de Kooning felt the pull of abstraction in his art, and thus his transformation from commercial to conceptual began.
This experimentation began in earnest over the course of the 1940s, as de Kooning slowly began to deconstruct his forms and figures into a melée of line and color. As a testament to this evolution, one can compare his striking Portrait of Elaine (1940-1941), his wife, to Untitled (Three Figures)(1947-1948) seen below. As one can see between these two works on paper, de Kooning abandoned the rigors of realistic representation over the course of the decade, preferring instead to experiment with the breakdown of the elements within his art.
This deconstruction would reach its zenith at the beginning of the decade following (1950-1952), when de Kooning completed his pivotal Women series. This grouping of works showcased his expressive style of abstraction and heralded his arrival as a pivotal player in the future of modernism. Before all of this this fame, though, de Kooning was an artist who was set on experimenting. His early drawings project a sense of this energy and enthusiasm, thereby offering an intimate view into one of the most significant artists of the last century.
Want to read more on de Kooning's early drawings? Seek out a copy of The Artist's Hand: Willem de Kooning Drawings, 1937 to 1954, published by Mitchell-Innes & Nash (2002). Have a favourite de Kooning drawing? Share it here!