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de Kooning: An American Master Paperback – April 4, 2006

4.8 out of 5 stars 56 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Gossipier than any tabloid, as scholarly as Vasari, luminously illustrated and illuminating as a lightning bolt, Stevens' and Swan's landmark biography is one of the most stunning art books I've seen in seven years of Amazon.com reviewing--a masterpiece that explains how the Dutchman de Kooning became the master painter of the American century. It's a page-turning tale: raised by a mom who beat him with wooden shoes, de Kooning escaped Rotterdam as a stowaway on a freighter and found a second family in New York's rampageous art bohemia. He subsisted on ketchup and booze, and broke through around 1950 with dazzling abstract expressionist canvases inspired by what was in the air: cubism, surrealism, jazz, and film noir. The careerist thing to do would've been to ride the Ab Ex tsunami, but de Kooning stubbornly defied purist abstraction with the startlingly quasi-figurative Woman paintings. Stevens and Swan artfully show how much went into these notorious works. De Kooning's Woman is "part vamp, part tramp," a Hollywood pinup girl with push-up bazooms, a dirty joke and a scary goddess based on a Mexican deity to whom hearts were sacrificed. She is also part Mom and part Elaine de Kooning, his artist/muse wife, and the numberless women he juggled.

He called himself a "slipping glimpser," and this book helps us see what he saw. Nobody has ever made de Kooning's slippery meanings and painstaking techniques clearer, in every phase, even the mysterious late paintings evincing the artist's advancing Alzheimer's-like illness. Now I finally get what essentially distinguished de Kooning from his rivalrous pals Gorky and Pollock, and more. I also know what de Kooning was like in bed (loud), how he managed to cheat on five steady lovers at a time(different doorbell codes), why he slept drunk in gutters even after he got rich, and how deeply he loved and how coldly he used women. Stevens and Swan manage to do what no dame ever did: they pin down his oblique soul. --Tim Appelo --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

This sweeping biography, 10 years in the making, chronicles in fastidious detail de Kooning's rise from his humble beginnings in Rotterdam to his fame as an abstract expressionist and his descent into alcoholism and Alzheimer's. Emigrating to New York in 1926, de Kooning (1904–1997) situated himself among fellow artists and role models like Arshile Gorky. In 1938, he met and later married painter Elaine Fried; the two remained married despite de Kooning's predilection for bed hopping. (An affair with Joan Ward resulted in a daughter, Lisa, and indeed, the authors spend more ink on de Kooning's womanizing than his art making.) In the early 1940s, de Kooning's work appeared in group shows; his first solo show was a commercial failure. The artist did not meet with real success until the 1950s, when his paintings Excavation and Woman 1 made him "first among equals" in the art world. Stevens, New York magazine's art critic, and Swan, a former senior arts editor at Newsweek, see in de Kooning's life the realization of classic stories—the triumph of the immigrant, the man consumed by his success, the nonexistence of life's second acts—and this comprehensive biography, which attempts to explain de Kooning's art through a careful catalogue of his personal life, is a must read for his admirers. Illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 732 pages
  • Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf; Reprint edition (April 13, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375711163
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375711169
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.6 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #142,973 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

By Driver9 on December 9, 2004
Format: Hardcover
What an amazing man, living in an amazing time. I was very moved by this biography, especially in the way in which de Kooning and his world come alive. The writing contains enough analysis to help connect the dots of the artist's life. And the book is rich in detail, especially about the art world in downtown New York from the 1930s on. I enjoyed reading some of the detailed descriptions of various New York venues.

One thing that struck me was how uniformly negative most of the reviews of de Kooning were. It seems as though he enjoyed a brief romance period with the critics early on, when his work was still entirely abstract. That was in 1950, after his work "Excavation." After that, the critics basically wrote him off, declaring that he was past his prime. There were, of course, some exceptions to this, including de Kooning himself.

It was also distressing to read in detail the gradual deterioration of the artist by alcohol and his destructive personal behavior. This was the only aspect of the book I had difficulty with, as at times I felt like a peeping tom, peering in on the lurid goings on in the de Kooning household. But I don't suppose there is any way to tell the story without telling that part of it. It is no big secret that many great artists, performers, poets, writers, etc., have had more than their fair share of demons to contend with, and this biography illuminates that point vividly.

The biography is extremely well written and the pages fall away with novelistic abandon. I did not feel weighed down by an over abundance of detail, but I also came away feeling very "satisfied" as a reader. Please go ahead and treat yourself to a powerful experience.
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Format: Hardcover
I found this book riveting--both a brilliant portrait of the artist and a deeply felt exploration of his art. In the past, I was always puzzled by the passionate, reverent affection a friend of mine, a successful figurative painter, expressed for de Kooning's work. Now I get it. Like all good criticism, "De Kooning: An American Master" expands the reader's understanding of (and appreciation for) the art it luminously examines. At the same time, the authors deftly conjure forth a three-dimensional picture of de Kooning the man: self-contradictory, funny, brilliant, maddening, and wholly original. The result is an insightful, fascinating book-as Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times, "smart and unflinching," "remarkably lucid," a "sweeping, authoritative biography."
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Format: Hardcover
I was outraged by Edward Baiamonte's review of the biography DE KOONING, AN AMERICAN MASTER. Mine is not a review but a rebuttal to such harmful comments. When he speaks of "egotistically" I think he should look at himself, who seems to think he alone knows what art should be expressing. De Kooning's work is a great importance in the history of art and in the expression of the inner self of a great artist. De Kooning was well trained in the Old Masters type of portraiture (if this man read the book, he'd know that),;he had exquisite skill. Abstract Expression is just one way of releasing, exploring and communicating the complexities of life. This biographyh of de Kooning is remarkable in its thorough examination of the life of one of the great characters of the century and remarkable for its ability to make the act of painting a physical and psychological experience we, the readers, can understand. I, for one, dread facing long books because I am a slow reader, but, in this case, I couldn't put the book down -- as we say. It is a great read, it is based on serious research, it could not be more immediate in terms of pleasure. It's a great read,. If this reviewer wants to bring God and morality into this book, I think any god, including his, would be proud of such a searching mind and talent, de Kooning would represent man's higher nature in all its soul searching, in failures and success. I am giving this book to most people on my Christmas list!
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Format: Hardcover
I found de Kooning: An American Master to be one the most colorful and interesting biographies I have ever spent time with. The authors' discussion of de Kooning's art is accessible and insightful and woven into the context of his life and relationships. I particularly valued the authors' discussions of de Kooning's relationships with women, which so powerfully influenced his art and are fascinating in their own right. In addition, the authors' discussion of the rise of the New York school of abstract expressionism provided a rich and informative perspective (at least for those largely uninitiated in art history, like me) in tracing de Kooning's own ascent. Moreover, the book is wonderfully written, never dull.
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This is an exhaustively researched and detailed account written in a way that draws the reader into de Kooning's struggle on a daily basis. For all of its 630 pages, it was a real page turner - I could hardly wait to see what was going to happen next.

It is a powerful tale of a childhood of poverty, neglect and abuse in Rotterdam, Holland, from which he escapes first by attending a traditional academy of art at night while working as a decorative artist, and second by stowing away on a freighter bound for America at the age of 22, where for years afterward he would be an illegal alien beset by the anxieties of that status. He spends a decade as a commercial artist in New York before deciding to devote himself entirely to his painting, a choice he makes in the depths of the Great Depression by quitting his day job. There follow two decades of obsessive and disciplined dedication to his painting in the face of self-doubt and grinding poverty with little recognition, capped by a year and a half struggle with just one painting, his disturbing and controversial Woman I. The following three decades of fame and fortune are overshadowed by more self-doubt, intermittent ridicule and dismissal at the hands of the art world, topped off with repeated bouts of catastrophic binge drinking.

Through it all, he remains stubbornly resistant to the siren call of the artistic fashions that he has created and repeatedly veers off track at the height of success to pursue yet another difficult vector. The tale is lubricated with a constant flow of beautiful and exotic women who are caught up in his spell but always (and often to their chagrin) remain subordinate to his painting.
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