Artists' Quotes: Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning - Pink Angels, ca. 1945
Willem de Kooning (American, b. Netherlands, 1904-1997). Pink Angels, ca. 1945. Oil and charcoal on canvas. 52 x 40 in. (132.1 x 101.6 cm). Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation, Los Angeles. © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Willem de Kooning was a soft-spoken, hard-drinking, free-loving, deep-thinking cornerstone of the Post-War New York School. We love him for his paintings, but how did he fare as a conversationalist? Here he is in his own words. It's up to you to imagine the Dutch accent, and the way he would bid you farewell (as he did to everyone he liked, which was nearly everyone he ever met): "Bless your heart."

On Artists

  • An artist is someone who makes art ... he didn't invent it.
  • The artist fills space with an attitude. The attitude never comes from himself alone.
  • Whatever an artist's personal feelings are, as soon as an artist fills a certain area on the canvas or circumscribes it, he becomes historical. He acts from or upon other artists.
  • People worship the painting of an artist and don't know anything about the man. I never get conceited about my work because the paintings are not me. And no matter how hard an artist tries, it can never be good enough.

On Art

  • I make pictures and someone comes in and calls it art.
  • Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure. I always seem to be wrapped up in the melodrama of vulgarity.

On His Childhood

  • At sixteen I stopped work and became a bohemian. -- De Kooning does not mention that he also left home at this time. His mother had just physically assaulted him in a fit of anger.
  • That's the person I feared most in the whole world. -- De Kooning after seeing his elderly mother in a Rotterdam nursing home, in 1968.

On His Training

  • At the academy in Rotterdam we were all under the influence of de Stijl. This was in the early twenties. We weren't at all interested in pure art, or in the person who earned his living being an artist. The Stijl group obviously encouraged our feelings. A modern artist, according to them, was not at all somebody who painted nice pictures ... He was an expert, a designer for example or somebody in publicity. And so I didn't have a wish at all to become a painter.
  • My only interest was in being an illustrator or something like that... I was a good house painter. [Real] painting was a sideline.

On Attempting to Sneak into the United States

  • I had a lot of trouble getting [to America]... Every time I hid out on a ship, they found me, or the boat wasn't going anywhere.

On His "Black and White" Period

  • On 4th Avenue I was painting in black and white a lot. Not with a chip on my shoulder about it, but I needed a lot of paint and I wanted to get free of materials. I could get a gallon of black paint and a gallon of white paint, and I could go to town.

On His Woman Series

  • Maybe ... I was painting the woman in me. Art isn't a wholly masculine occupation, you know. I'm aware that some critics would take this to be an admission of latent homosexuality ... If I painted beautiful women, would that make me a non-homosexual? I like beautiful women. In the flesh -- even the models in magazines. Women irritate me sometimes. I painted that irritation in the Woman series. That's all.

On Working with Clay

  • You can work and work on a painting but you can't start over again with the canvas like it was before you put that first stroke down. And sometimes, in the end, it's no good, no matter what you do. But with clay, I cover it with a wet cloth and come back to it the next morning and if I don't like what I did, or I changed my mind, I can break it down and start over. It's always fresh.

    On (Briefly) Teaching at Yale, Where He Was Mistaken for a Custodian

    • You think because your father is rich, culture is going to stick to your ass. -- said to a student
    • These guys are so lousy. Why don't you flunk them? -- said to Josef Albers, who had gotten De Kooning the job

    On Arshile Gorky

    • I met a lot of artists, but then I met Gorky.
    • ... It was mentioned that I was one of his influences. Now that is plain silly. When, about fifteen years ago, I walked into Arshile's studio for the first time, the atmosphere was so beautiful that I got a little dizzy and when I came to, I was bright enough to take the hint immediately. If the bookkeepers think it necessary continuously to make sure of where things and people come from, well then, I come from 36 Union Square [Gorky's studio]. It is incredible to me that other people live there now. I am glad that it is about impossible to get away from his powerful influence. As long as I keep it with myself I'll be doing all right. Sweet Arshile, bless your dear heart.

      On Jackson Pollock

      • Every so often, a painter has to destroy painting. Cezanne did it, Picasso did it with Cubism. Then Pollock did it. He busted our idea of a picture all to hell. Then there could be new paintings again.

      Jackson Pollock on Willem de Kooning

      • Bill, you betrayed it. You're doing the figure, you're still doing the same goddamn thing. You know you never got out of being a figure painter. -- This at a party after De Kooning's first show at the Sidney Janis Gallery in March, 1953. Pollock, who was quite drunk at the time, absolutely did not say it quietly.

      On the Death of Frank O'Hara in 1966

      • He [O'Hara] had so much grace, that man, even through all the delirium and agony.
      • We were very good friends ... It was terrible. I wasn't able to work for weeks. Everything you do is without meaning. A total void. And of course after a few weeks you start over again. You want to live and keep on seeking for something. And at the end you die. And that's a kind of fiasco.

      On Norman Rockwell, One of His Favorite Artists

      • He probably had the same compassion for me like he does for the people in his pictures.

      On Philosophy

      • I was reading Kierkegaard and I came across the phrase 'To be pure is to will one thing.' It made me sick.

      On Being an Alcoholic

      • There used to be a garden-type place in the Bowery -- flowers, plants and benches -- where the bums would go snooze and wine-dream. I envied their art of measured imbibing. I used to give them money to buy their sweet wine. Why not help them feel good? Now, me, I used to be a boozer. I had to stop. I couldn't drink, sip by sip, through the day, just enough, like they could. I would just get stoned and sick. How did they do it? I envied them that.

      On Aging

      • You get old, you get used to yourself. A painter can go down, way down, when he's waiting to go down. Franz Kline went very down, and I used to be so nervous I got palpitations. Now I don't have that trouble. I see the canvas, and I begin. But you have to keep on the very edge of something, all the time, or the picture dies.
      • Well, I don't know. In a way I have him on my mind all the time. But I forget what the paintings -- his and mine -- look like at a certain point. -- when asked if there was an homage to Arshile Gorky in a late painting
      • Artists themselves have no past. They just get older.

      Sculptor Ibram Lassow on De Kooning in 1989

      • I remember the times long ago when Bill and I would wonder what it would be like to be well known. What a strange thing that he became an internationally famous artist, and the irony is that now he doesn't even know. Now he paints and eats, and that's all.


      Berman, Avis. "Willem de Kooning: I Am Only Halfway Through," Art News (February 1982)

      De Kooning, Willem. Collected Writings of William De Kooning.
      Madras and New York: Hanuman Books, 1988.

      Murphy, Susan. "De Kooning and Me," Huffington Post (October 31, 2011)

      Stevens, Mark and Annalyn Swan. de Kooning: An American Master.
      New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.