Willem de Kooning In Italy

by Laura Heyrman

This spring and summer, the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice is exhibiting a survey of the art of Willem de Kooning (Dutch, American, 1904–1997) with an emphasis on the influence his visits to Italy had on his works. This exhibition partially coincides with the 2024 Venice Biennale (April 20–November 24), but is independent of it.

De Kooning is well-known as one of the founding members of the Abstract Expressionist movement in New York City in the mid 20th century. He’s perhaps best known for his aggressively painted images of women, so I was interested to discover other aspects of his work that are less commonly reproduced. Born in the Netherlands, de Kooning arrived in the United States at age 22 as a stowaway on a ship from Rotterdam. After earning a living as a house painter, carpenter, and commercial illustrator, he began painting and making friends among modernist artists in New York. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the artist joined forces with Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and others working in New York as they sought to break free of European influences and develop a uniquely American avant garde movement. This was what we know today as Abstract Expressionism, the first avant garde style to develop in the US, and an important force in making New York the artistic capital it remains today. De Kooning stood out from his colleagues in those early years in his continuing figural work, especially the Woman series.

In 1959, de Kooning traveled to Italy for the first time, spending a short time in Venice and just a few hours in Rome. This brief taste of that city brought him back not long after, when he spent four months in Rome. The ink on paper work included in the slide show, Untitled (Rome), was created during this visit. It is one of a series of similar works which the artist created during his stay. The energy of the ink drawings and the artist’s mixing of ground pumice into some of the ink reflect the excitement and experimentation that Rome inspired in de Kooning. When the artist returned to New York, he continued to process and utilize the inspiration from his time in Italy, particularly in the three large paintings from 1960 – Door to the River, A Tree in Naples, and Villa Borghese – whose titles and related palettes reflect his time in Italy and the works' connection to one another. The current exhibition is the first time these three works have been exhibited together. In a 1960 interview, de Kooning expressed his view of the current state of his work:

"I get freer. I feel I am getting more to myself in the sense of, I have all my forces ... I have this sort of feeling that I am all there now."

De Kooning returned to Italy in 1969 for an extended visit. During this time, he encountered a sculptor he’d known in New York, Herz Emmanuel, who owned a small foundry. Encouraged by his friend to experiment, the artist began to create small clay models from which bronzes could be cast. The 7.5 inch (19.1 cm) tall bronze Untitled #12 retains the marks of de Kooning’s hand shaping the clay model. The sculpture is as expressive as the artist's paintings. De Kooning's dealer disliked the sculptures but English sculptor Henry Moore (1898–1986) did and suggested de Kooning increase the size of his sculptures. Seated Woman on a Bench, at 38 inches (96.5 cm), is an example of the larger scale works, mostly created between 1972 and 1974. Many artists who create both two and three dimensional works shift between media to resolve artistic challenges or to explore new takes on older ideas. I’ve included an installation view from the exhibition that connects Seated Woman on a Bench with an earlier painting by de Kooning, Woman on a Sign II, 1967. The poses of the women in the two works are nearly identical. This kind of connection is something that a thoughtfully curated exhibition can make for viewers, and that a thoughtful photographer can capture for those of us who can’t make it to the exhibition.

I hope you enjoy this selection of works from “Willem de Kooning and Italy” and if you’re lucky enough to visit Venice and see the exhibition, please share your experiences with us by commenting on Substack. Link: irequireart.substack.com/p/viewing-room-19/comments

“Willem De Kooning and Italy” (April 17 – September 15) Exhibition website link: gallerieaccademia.it/en/willem-de-kooning-e-litalia-en

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Untitled (Rome)
Willem de Kooning
Ink on paper, 40 x 30 in. l 101.6 x 76.2 cm.
The Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation, New York, New York, USA. © The Willem de Kooning Foundation.
A Tree in Naples
Willem de Kooning
Oil on canvas, 80.3 x 70.1 in l 203.7 x 178.1 cm.
Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York, USA. © The Willem de Kooning Foundation.
Door to the River
Willem de Kooning
Oil on linen, 80.1 x 70 in. l 203.5 x 178.1 cm.
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York. © The Willem de Kooning Foundation.
Villa Borghese
Willem de Kooning
Oil on canvas, 80 x 70 in. l 206.5 x 181.4 cm.
Guggenheim Bilbao, Bilbao, Spain. © The Willem de Kooning Foundation.
Untitled #12
Willem de Kooning
Bronze, 7.5 x 9.3 x 5.8 in. l 19.1 x 23.5 x 14.6 cm.
Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Texas, USA. © The Willem de Kooning Foundation.
Installation view of “Willem de Kooning and Italy” at Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy
Matteo de Fina
Exhibition curated by Gary Garrels and Mario Codognato, continues through September 15, 2024. The works shown appear in the next two slides.
Woman on a Sign II
Willem de Kooning (Dutch, American, 1904 – 1997)
Oil on paper mounted on canvas, 56 x 41.5 in. l 142.3 x 105.4 cm.
Private collection. © The Willem de Kooning Foundation.
Seated Woman on a Bench
Willem de Kooning
Bronze, #4 of edition of 7, 38 x 37 x 32.6 in. l 96.5 x 94 x 82.9 cm.
Tate, London, England, UK. © The Willem de Kooning Foundation.
Red Man with Moustache
Willem de Kooning
Oil on paper mounted on canvas, 73.2 x 76.5 in. l 186 x 91.5 cm.
Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain. © The Willem de Kooning Foundation.
Willem de Kooning in his East Hampton Studio, New York
Dan Budnik (American, 1933 – 2020)
© Estate of Dan Budnik.
Pirate (Untitled II)
Willem de Kooning
Oil on canvas, 88 x 77 in. l 223.4 x 194.4 cm.
Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York, USA. © The Willem de Kooning Foundation.