6 Lessons Learned from Willem de Kooning

I went to MoMA today to see the de Kooning retrospective. I’m not going to try and review the show, I’m sure you can find a way more literate view if you want one. But I did learn six life lessons from a remarkable, prolific career:

1. Erasing and reworking is part of the process: de Kooning often erased and reworked parts of the drawings that eventually became paintings. The evidence of this editing is visible in some works.

2. Recycling elements from one work to another is perfectly acceptable: de Kooning would take parts of one painting and then use them again in a completely new painting. Why re-create from scratch every time?

3. Being “influenced” by others is fine as long as you make it your own: Even a complete art novice like me could see where de Kooning was influenced by masters like Picasso. But it was equally clear to me that his style was completely his own, not a mere copy of earlier works.

4. Test: de Kooning often pinned vellum drawings to paintings to see how certain elements would work before committing to the canvas.

5. Sometimes you need to take a break: In the late 60s de Kooning took a break from painting to explore sculpture. When he returned to painting in the mid-70s he had a renewed focus and vigor.

6. Don’t be afraid to change how you work to accommodate changes in your life: Late in his life de Kooning didn’t have the physical ability to work in the same ways he had previously. His paintings changed dramatically and he did less reworking than he had previously. The late paintings are sparer, with big, sweeping strokes instead of the detailed brushwork of his earlier work. They are no less wonderful, but they are different.