It is easy to think of Willem de Kooning as the poster boy of modern art. So much of his life--the bohemian existence in Greenwich Village, the poverty, the womanizing, the alcoholism--fits the cliche of the turbulent artist struggling to reinvent himself and his art. Then there's the art itself: big, eruptive paintings filled with odd, often frightening images of women or landscapes or outright abstractions slashed with color that seems almost coughed onto the canvas. But as his adroit biographers Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan take pains to show in "De Kooning: An American Master," this notion is a superficial take on a highly sophisticated artist for whom contradiction and ambiguity were twin grails that he sought to incorporate into every square inch of his art. The Dutch-born de Kooning put it best, in his trademark fractured English: "When I'm falling, I'm doing all right... It's when I'm standing upright that bothers me: I'm not doing so good; I'm stiff. As a matter of fact, I'm really slipping, most of the time, into that glimpse. I'm like a slipping glimpser."
Born in 1904, de Kooning stowed away to America in 1926. Schooled as a commercial artist (and with a draftsman's skills second to none), he had no trouble finding work as a house painter, muralist and shop-window dresser. It was only when he decided to completely abandon commercial art in his 30s and make his way as an artist that de Kooning first experienced real poverty. For years he struggled, tearing up drawings, painting out canvases, doing whatever it took to placate his severest critic: himself. He was almost 48 before he received his first serious check, when the Art Institute of Chicago bought an early masterpiece, "Excavation," for $4,000. Poor or rich, he never found it any easier to paint. As Stevens and Swan (both former NEWSWEEK writers) put it, "There was no forever in his sensibility, no eternal in his heart, no permanence in his painting, no bedrock in his home."
A titan of 20th-century American art, de Kooning was also its most antithetical hero, an abstractionist who worshiped not just Picasso but Rubens and Vermeer, a painter who viewed all art, right back to the Lascaux caves, in the present tense. He was, in short, a modernist at war with modernism's central tenet of all-new-all-the-time. His work derives its explosive energy from the unresolved tension between old and new, figuration and abstraction, beauty and vulgarity (Stevens and Swan point out that de Kooning's landmark painting "Woman I" "does not have breasts; she has boobs").
The authors do a thorough job of giving him his due as an artist. They also host a terrific tour of his world, especially the boozing and intellectual brawling that characterized the midcentury New York art scene--the Cedar Tavern might as well be a major character. Better yet, they free their all-too-human subject from the accretion of legend, or rather they point out which parts of the legend are worth believing. The notion that his wife, Elaine, was the muse who finally kick-started his art with the "Women" paintings she inspired? Believe that one. The de Kooning in these pages is slyly ambitious, hardworking, curious and funny. A faithless husband, a bad father and an alcoholic, he is also a man of endless charm and loyalty--his rival Jackson Pollock, for example, was also his pal. Not every great artist leads a fascinating life. De Kooning did. Stevens and Swan give him a great biography to prove it.