de Kooning: An American Master by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan

de Kooning: An American Master by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan

“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 analysis, Stevens and Swan manage to give a detailed and clear picture of this fickle painter. But it’s the narrative qualities that make reading this book such a joy, as the authors bring not just de Kooning but the entire tumultuous mid-century New York art world to life—the time when “the individual refused to be contained by the conventional boundaries established by either European or middle class taste.” (p. 364) Sections about de Kooning laboring in his studio are incredibly vivid (as well as inspiring and, often, exhausting), and, with each struggle for artistic breakthrough, I became more and more invested in his journey. Considering how conflicting, cruel, and infuriating of a person he could be, this is, perhaps, the greatest testament to the achievements of this book.