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De Kooning: An American Master

4.10  ·  Rating details ·  2,689 ratings  ·  114 reviews
Willem de Kooning is one of the most important artists of the twentieth century, a true “painter’s painter” whose protean work continues to inspire many artists. In the thirties and forties, along with Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock, he became a key figure in the revolutionary American movement of abstract expressionism. Of all the painters in that group, he worked the ...more
Paperback, 732 pages
Published April 4th 2006 by Knopf Publishing Group (first published 2004)
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4.10  · 
Rating details
 ·  2,689 ratings  ·  114 reviews

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Dec 05, 2007 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
Nov 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: best-of-2014
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
Ed Smiley
Nov 01, 2010 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
Aug 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
A very well-written, if at times overly adulatory, biography of the artist Willem de Kooning. It draws upon first-hand accounts and sources, and is very complete in most respects. However, the depiction of the artist’s wife, Elaine, is unflattering, and seems to fall short of a more honest appraisal of her abilities and importance as an artist. She is generally given short shrift, and is brushed off as something of an annoyance, which does not do her justice, either as an artist or as his wife. ...more
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
Dec 26, 2012 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 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 l ...more
Ruth Charchian
Oct 29, 2012 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
Oct 17, 2007 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 t ...more
Feb 23, 2018 rated it liked it
If you can, read this book with a complimentary book of all his art work. That way when they talk about a painting and moment in his life, you can view that moment--The words describing the artistic moment aren't enough. You want to see what they're talking about and this book doesn't have enough photos of paintings to do that. Hey, I think I'm going to do that with other artists--two books. one a biography, the other all his paintings. Double hey hey. You could do that with music--a bio on the ...more
Suzanne Walker
Dec 14, 2016 rated it really liked it
It's no spoiler alert to warn you that biographies never have happy endings. They all end in a graveyard. But this one is more depressing than usual, what with his studio assistants propping him up at the end of his life and putting him in front of a canvas and sticking a paintbrush in his hand. Why couldn't they just let him sit in a lounge chair and watch "Three's Company" reruns?
Daniel H
Jan 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Long and meticulously detailed, even boring at times, but absolutely essential for understanding 20th century American art.
Jan 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, 2018
I completely understand why this won the Pulitzer.
Mar 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
even if you are into de kooning work its still a great immigrant story. also paints a very vivid sense of the ny art scene in the 40s.
Jul 23, 2012 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
Jul 24, 2011 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
Dec 12, 2014 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
Mar 27, 2009 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 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 09, 2010 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, Rober ...more
Feb 27, 2010 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 commitmen ...more
Wendy Wax
Feb 21, 2010 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 America ...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

May 04, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: about-art
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 i ...more
Sep 18, 2007 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 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 fr ...more
Margaret Haerens
Apr 24, 2010 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 insigh ...more
Apr 04, 2007 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.
Nov 27, 2010 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 ar ...more
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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