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de Kooning, a dominant abstract expressionist, dies

Willem de Kooning, considered one of the greatest artists of his time and a dominant figure in the abstract expressionist art movement, died Wednesday. He was 92.

The Dutch-born painter died about 6:30 a.m. in his studio, said Donald Mac-Killop, owner of Williams Funeral Home.

Mr. de Kooning influenced countless artists of the New York School that came to prominence after World War II, but his own work was not limited to one style. He swung between periods of pure abstraction and using rudimentary subject matter.

His paintings were to art what be-bop was to jazz, what existentialism was to philosophy.

His quick strokes and staccato lines shattered objective representation, with colors and lines blending and twisting in what he called a "no-environment" form where foreground and background were interchangeable.

The paintings made him a national treasure and also made him very wealthy. One 1955 work, Interchange, sold for $20.8-million in 1989, the same year Mr. de Kooning's body of work was estimated as being worth $300-million.

He helped invent "action" paintings that reflected his life in New York's Greenwich Village. It was the life of the prototype Bohemian artist living in the uproar of bars and paint-splashed loft studios with a mad creativity.

Along with fellow abstract painter Jackson Pollock, Mr. de Kooning was the superstar of art in the 1950s. Much of what followed _ Minimalism, Magic Realism, Deconstructionism, Op, Pop _ was a reaction to his style.

He was big and handsome, a broad-shouldered man who wore a denim work shirt and a pair of paint-spattered jeans, his blond hair forever in his eyes. "He had the looks of an Adonis and the sexual appeal of Picasso," the Times of London wrote.

He was perhaps the most written about and analyzed of American artists, but he shunned intellectual pretension, saying, "I don't paint with ideas of art in mind. I see something that excites me. It becomes my content."

Mr. de Kooning was born April 24, 1904, in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. His father was a beer distributor and his mother ran a bar. Employed by age 12 in a commercial art firm, he studied for eight years at Rotterdam's leading art school and came to the United States as a stowaway in 1926.

He painted signs and worked as a carpenter in New York City while living the life of the starving artist, then in 1935 landed a job with the Works Progress Administration, a government agency that put artists to work in the Depression.

His first one-man show was mounted in 1948, and Light in August and Painting caused a critical stir. The paintings marked the birth of Abstract Expressionism.

Both were done with commercial house paint in black and white and owe a debt to Picasso's cubism. But they contain a whiplash line and the new "action" that grabbed the critics.

The paintings brought the New York City night to the canvas, achieving, as critic Thomas Hess said, "a higher degree of ambiguity _ of forms dissolving into their opposites _ than ever before."

In 1950, Mr. de Kooning, then 46, sent his first paintings to Europe, appearing in a major competition in Venice. Other Americans, including Pollock and Arshile Gorky, were also represented and the abstractionists stunned the art world.

Mr. de Kooning's Excavation did not win the first prize at the Venice show _ Matisse was the winner _ but critic Harold Rosenberg said the painting established Mr. de Kooning as America's leading painter.

Mr. de Kooning completed Excavation in June 1950 and a few days later began work on Woman I, the most famous of dozens of paintings he made of women.

His wife, Elaine, who died in 1989, said he worked on Woman I nearly every day for two years. She estimated that perhaps 200 paintings were made on the same canvas. It was finished in June 1952 and he followed it with a burst of other paintings in the Women series, paintings neither wholly abstract nor realistic.

He painted until the late 1980s, producing abstracts that became ever more bright and airy, the whiplash lines of the 1940s replaced by long, stringy strokes.

Mr. de Kooning was stricken with Alzheimer's disease. By 1989, nearly 75 years after he started painting as a boy in his mother's bar in Holland, he put down his brush.