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De Kooning: An American Master

4.09  ·  Rating Details ·  2,303 Ratings  ·  109 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.
Paperback, 732 pages
Published April 4th 2006 by Alfred A. Knopf (first published 2004)
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Jan 12, 2009 Laurel rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
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
Feb 02, 2014 Douglas rated it it was amazing
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
Nancy Burns
Aug 22, 2015 Nancy Burns rated it it was amazing
Shelves: pultizer
Expressive element in art exists in the hand and mind of the artist.
That is why a biography can explain so much about a painter.
De Kooning had many demon.
He was a tormented man...and that is reflected in his art.

My review:
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
Ruth Charchian
Nov 15, 2012 Ruth Charchian rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography
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
Dec 26, 2014 Jessica rated it really liked it
I'm trying to make myself read more history and biographies, even when I know nothing about the topic (perhaps especially when I know nothing about the topic as then I'm learning about something completely new). I knew nothing at all about de Kooning, and I wasn't exactly psyched to read 630 pages about the man. I'm not an art buff, in fact I know very little about art, particularly modern art. I don't really understand how to appreciate random splatters and swirls of color.

Luckily this book was
Jan 31, 2013 Cody rated it really liked it
“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
Jan 25, 2016 John rated it did not like it
How did this book win the Pulitzer? When someone chooses to read a biography about an artist, they are usually interested in the artists life and how they came to create their reputation as a master. This telling of DeKooning's life spent 5% of the read explaining his art and technique and 95% on the repetitious nihilistic behavior of drinking and sleeping around. This would have been relevant if the authors tied it to his art for each of the periods of his life. Explaining how these women and ...more
Oct 17, 2007 Anthony rated it it was ok
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 ...more
Ed Smiley
Jan 22, 2012 Ed Smiley rated it it was amazing
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:

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
Nov 14, 2016 E rated it liked it
Interesting book, especially the beginning. Did not finish, the last 150 pages I had lost interest in finishing
Ray Richard
Oct 06, 2016 Ray Richard rated it it was amazing
May be the best book I've read and I've read many. Filled with melodic sentences that tell a unique American story. Don't get turned off by the art angle; this book is for everyone.
Oct 06, 2012 Brian rated it really liked it
Shelves: biographymemoir
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
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
Oct 22, 2011 Kathleen rated it it was amazing
Shelves: art, biography
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
Mar 27, 2009 Jamie rated it really liked it
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
Anita Macauslan
Aug 05, 2011 Anita Macauslan rated it it was ok
Shelves: biographic
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
Dec 12, 2010 Brian rated it it was amazing
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, ...more
Feb 27, 2010 Laura rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Wendy Wax
Feb 21, 2010 Wendy Wax rated it it was amazing
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 ...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

Feb 21, 2016 Elyse rated it really liked it
Shelves: art-history
This is a well researched and well written biography of an artist whose career helped define American art in the second half of the twentieth-century. The sections about the New York art scene in the 1950's are particularly vivid. The only thing I actively disliked in this book was its treatment of Elaine de Kooning. I found it to be rather unfair to her and to her relationship with Willem de Kooning. A lot of de Kooning's female relationships were problematic, and he gets off pretty scot-free ...more
Oct 14, 2007 Jessie rated it it was amazing
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.
Jul 13, 2011 Gregzeck rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Margaret Haerens
May 09, 2010 Margaret Haerens rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Apr 04, 2007 Dave rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
This was a christmas gift from 2005. I read the review in the NYT [] 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.
Dec 09, 2010 Cameron rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Jun 06, 2008 ej rated it really liked it
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.
May 05, 2011 robert rated it did not like it
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.
Dave Holcomb
Jan 28, 2014 Dave Holcomb rated it really liked it
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...
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Mark Stevens is an award-winning commercial writer, author and blogger (

His work has appeared on television and radio, in newspapers and magazines, online, on billboards and bookshelves.

His first e-book SHORTSTUFF 1 is a collection of 8 tall stories done short, that are equal parts silly, weird, absurd, funny and far fetched.

He lives with his wife and 3 children in a
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