De Kooning: An American Master
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De Kooning: An American Master

4.08 of 5 stars 4.08  ·  rating details  ·  1,439 ratings  ·  98 reviews
Traces the career of abstract expressionist Willem De Kooning, discussing his personal life with wife Elaine Fried, and his battle with alcoholism and Alzheimer's disease...Title: .De Kooning..Author: .Stevens, Mark/ Swan, Annalyn..Publisher: .Random House Inc..Publication Date: .2006/04/04..Number of Pages: .732..Binding Type: .PAPERBACK..Library of Congress: .bl200701204...more
Paperback, 732 pages
Published April 13th 2006 by Alfred A. Knopf (first published 2004)
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Laurel
Before I read this book, I rarely read straight-up biographies. I think the last one I read was a bio of Sylvia Plath I waded though in the tenth grade for an essay I was writing on her (oh yes, I was so tortured). I still recall bits and pieces from that bio, but I didn't crave all things biography after I'd finished. I think I went to track practice and forgot about it.

This book has singlehandedly renewed my faith in the biography. I have never been in love with de Kooning's paintings, but I...more
Douglas Feil
This was an extremely difficult read and is even more so to review. I feel as though I don't know enough about art and painting to offer an adequate evaluation. It was the not knowing of this topic that drew me to this bio, and the best thing I did gain from this is a heightened appreciate for paintings.

As a musician, I'm always fascinated by any artist's creative process, but what's to be done if you get too close? Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan won the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Cir...more
Louise
The two authors have devoted a good piece of their lives to documenting deKooing's. The book clearly focuses on the artist and his artistic legacy. A byproduct of this giant effort is a history of America's emergence in the world of art. The authors show how a small group of literally starving artists survived, and how and why deKooning reaped worldwide recognition and wealth as he became the literal survivor.

There are many striking things about deKooning's story. The first is the total deprivat...more
Cody
“I didn’t want to pin it down at all. I was interested in that before, but I found out it was not in my nature. I didn’t work with the idea of perfection, but to see how far one could go.” (p. 342)

How does one pin down Willem de Kooning, the master of impasto and ambiguity? An artist that refused any reconciliation, de Kooning’s reputation for enraging and enthralling is writ large and real in this vast biography. The success of this text is two-fold. First, through exhaustive research and analy...more
Ruth Charchian
Even if you are not a fan of abstract art, this is a stunning masterful book. It won a Pulitzer Prize for a reason. When you make the decision to read this book be prepared to virtually move in with de Kooning, his masterful paintings, his struggles with alcohol, his friends, his women, and his art dealers. The level of detail and breadth of description is illuminating. His work was his life. Nothing else really mattered to him. He labored over his early paintings trying to determine who he was...more
Anthony
I know this book got great reviews, and I hate to be the sand in the works, but I found it to be kind of creaky. The biographical information was presented in a fairly straightforward way ... interesting, but the writing was only on the level of good journalism. Each chapter concludes with a discussion of one of DeKooning's major works from the period covered. These I found painful, the worst kind of foggy, bum-kissing artspeak. (That's just my opinion; lots of people disagreed.) The one thing t...more
Jamie
This is a brilliant biography. I only read it because I thought de Kooning was like a lesser Pollack but there wasn't a hefty definitive Pollack bio lying about at my boyfriend's parents' house, and this one was. But Mark Stevens writes the most readable, intriguing portrait of de Kooning, making you realize that there is so much more to this abstract painter. For one, he was a totally skilled draftsman. He just shifted to abstract expressionism and, late in life, sculpture. I think that it's so...more
Ed Smiley
This autobiography deservedly netted a lot of book awards, including the Pulitzer. I'm going to do a fairly detailed review, but it only scratches the surface of this book, and is no substitute for reading it.

There was a major de Kooning retrospective at MOMA in 2011-2012 with 200 works, around the time this book was released:
http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhi...

I won't label it a spoiler, because there is so much I left out, but if you hate knowing anything about a book, then you might want...more
Kathleen
Loved this!
It made me want to forget his life, remember his pictures. I must see the MOMA retrospective!


1. At the end of section 1 -- Holland -- I am disgusted with 22-year-old de Kooning. He stowed away on a ship bound for America without saying goodbye to his mother! or father (they lived apart). or the big sister who supported him in so many ways. Ingrate!
2. de Kooning quickly found work (interior design) & women (first one, then another, then another... sometimes all in same bed). After...more
Terrance Owens
This book can get bogged down in recounting the minutes of de Kooning's life. We don't need to hear about every downswing and every comeback and every alcoholic binge he went on. The last one hundred pages say the same thing over and over until he dies and nothing new really comes to light other than the fact that a really old man is having trouble remembering things. Isaacson or McCullough wouldn't have let that happen, especially with a subject who was the master of escaping (he painted secret...more
Nathan
An art biography whose strengths lie mostly in its treatment of the non-artistic aspects of de Kooning's life. Beginning with a classic and finely-rendered account of de Kooning's experience as an immigrant and moving slowly but purposefully to his emergence as as artist and the establishment of his place in the art world, Stevens and Swan give us a vivid portrait of an artist's self-discovery and the formation of a working aesthetic.

Once De Kooning is established as an artist, the narrative stu...more
Brian
My life got became pretty crazy when I was reading this 650-page epic, which lead to my reading it over the course of many weeks - much longer than it usually takes me to finish a book (especially a book as compulsively readable as this one) By the time I'd reached the end, I felt like I'd spent a life time with it - probably due to a combination of its scale, scope, complexity, and of course, it's subject.

There's something huge-seeming about de Kooning's life, and it fittingly deserves no less...more
Anita Macauslan
This is certainly an informative read and I would recommend it to anyone who is a fan of de Kooning's work. That sad, it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. I found the writers jumping to a number of conclusions and making a lot of inferences (mostly regarding his relationships and emotions) without anything to back them up. (i.e. - "Though he never said so, it may have been that de Kooning felt..." and we have a page or so of unconfirmed emotional turmoil.) Also, they seem to spend far more...more
Brian
This book tells a great personal story. Childhood poverty, earning a scholarship to one of Holland's premier art academies, immigrating to New York after World War II, working as a a carpenter and window dresser, breakthroughs to new artistic levels, living in the bohemian world of Greenwich Village in the 50's, alcoholism, the several women who critically influenced his life (and the many who did not), the influence of his mentor Arshile Gorky, his friendship/rivalry with Jackson Pollack, Rober...more
Dave Holcomb
An excellent overview of the artist's life an work that manages to skirt many of the critical pitfalls that threaten any overview of an artist whose work covers such a long span of the twentieth century, with all its fads and fashions in art. I do almost wish I had skipped the last couple of chapters, though -- the final illness and death of both de Kooning and his wife Elaine made for some very, very depressing reading...
Laura
I love this book! Being a self-professed art nerd, this shouldn't be a surprise. Although an extremely dense book, and not the quickest read of my life (I've taken more than a few breaks!), it always left me thinking about it when I wasn't reading it. An extremely comprehensive overview of de Kooning's life from his humble beginnings in the Netherlands to a who's-who in mid-century New York. As an artist who connects with his work on such a level that is incomparable to many today, his commitmen...more
Bookmarks Magazine

Critics unreservedly praise Stevens's and Swan's opus as a masterpiece in art writing, a landmark biography, and a fascinating look at early 20th-century New York. Several laud the writers' meticulous research and eloquent style, and most appreciate the balance with which the authors explore de Kooning's more human aspects, such as chronic infidelity and probable Alzheimer's Disease. Reviewers single out this tome as a gripping read for both fans of the painter and the uninitiated.

This is an ex

...more
Emily
I read this for a school project on Willem de Kooning, and I am thoroughly impressed by both how well researched it is and by how well-written it is. It is such a completely picture of his life. That being said, it's a 630 page book about an alcoholic philanderer. Great for research, but not my first thought when it comes to pleasure reading.
Wendy Wax
This book is a masterpiece! I loved every word of it and learned all about the NYC art world in the 1930s 40s, and 50s, after De Kooning escaped his shoe-throwing mom in Rotterdam and came to the U. S. as a stowaway in a freighter. I loved how the American artists (not yet famous) used to drop in at each other's studios. They were all fascinated by and jealous of that Spanish artist, Picasso, and memorized all his works at his NY gallery shows. De Kooning, who eventually became an master America...more
Cameron
Fascinating biography focusing on de Kooning's life, art and the rise of the New York School of abstract expressionism. Although I'm a great lover of the movement, I've never been particularly impressed with de Kooning's oeuvre. This book drills deep into his upbringing, style and psychology to present a deeply compelling character at the heart of American abstract art. The authors also exhaustively uncover the influence of his contemporaries, including his friendship with some of my favorite ar...more
Gregzeck
This is a terrifically written book about one of 20th Century America's most important abstract expressionist artists. Stevens and Swan, the authors, examine the man and the art in equal measure. Their treatment is loving but not fawning. They see De Kooning, a Dutch immigrant, as a flawed but dedicated artist. They range into his obsessions, his accomplishments, his relationships. They treat his womanizing and his alcoholism -- and their relation to De Kooning's art. They appreciate his full fr...more
Margaret Haerens
A terrific biography on one of the most important American painters of the 20th century. I feel like I have a real sense of de Koonig's life as well as his career after reading this; as well as his influences, his turbulent personal life, his struggle with alcoholism, and his relationships with other writers. A few years back I read the Pollack bio and was intrigued by the friendly yet competitive friendship between these two artists. Stevens really explores this aspect, as well as offers insigh...more
Dave
This was a christmas gift from 2005. I read the review in the NYT [http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/11/boo...] and the book sounded fascinating. The problem--the book is extremely detailed. I guess that is the point. de Kooning is a weirdo and fun to read about, but this experience made me think that sometimes I just like reading the reviews better than the entire book. I'm still working on it--I'll let you know how it ends--hint: think deathmatch with pollock.
Mii
Great book!
Jessie
Reading this was a labor of love. It was very long, a time consuming project of sorts. I am so glad that I decided to commit and under take it! If you are at all interested and/or know about abstract expressionism, you will find this book fascinating and completely enlightening. I really did not know very much about de Kooning beyond the "Women" series....I now feel like I know not only his work, but also him, personally. VERY well written and easy to read, despite the detail and lenghth.
Jennifer
This book was interesting. I really had zero knowledge de Kooning so I learned a lot. Loved the comparison of the Impressionists to the Abstract Impressionists. There were parts in the book when they talked about Alzheimers that didn't flow with the rest of the book. Almost like the text was inserted later from a bunch of pamphlets. Other than that is was a great book. I am seeing a trend in my reading and its alcoholism. De Kooning had the binge style that ends with a trip to the hospital.
Lia
this book serves its purpose. it's a biography. i think the writing is pretty average, but i also don't read a lot of biographies (basically none at all) so i don't know what the standard is. but... it's a fairly engrossing saga of de kooning's life drama. feels pretty satisfying to know about his life in such depth. i've been reading it for so long, and now that it's finished i'm going through withdrawal. overall, i wouldn't say it's required reading, but worthwhile bedside reading.
ej
For the most part, I adored this biography. I've always been a fan of de Kooning, and this book really captures not only important elements of his life, but attempts to embody the rise and plateau of Abstract Expressionism. Needless to say, it does a good job.
Another good thing about this book is that you don't need to be an art historian to appreciate the detail and the recounting of de Kooning's life--both in and out of the art world.
robert
I hated the focus of this book on the petty squalid and sad. This book focuses on de Koonings personal life and says almost nothing about what mattered to De Kooning. If the authors seem to have it in for De Kooning-- well, they are Art Critics after all, so enough said! I suppose one should expect that they would find a way to ignore the fantastic creative insightful stuff that De Kooning was known for.
Jess
Jul 27, 2007 Jess rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: the art curious
I have never enjoyed modern art because I found it cold. This book made me change my mind about it all. De Kooning was a rock star -- lived forever, painted forever, knew everyone, lived the artist hipster's life, slept with so many beautiful women, enjoyed success in his lifetime... and kept evolving as an artist. His life is part Charles Dickens, part fantasy life for any man who has ever lived.
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Mark Stevens is the art critic for New York Magazine. He has also been the art critic for The New Republic and Newsweek and has written for such publications as Vanity Fair, the New York Times, and The New Yorker. He lives in New York City.
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