Willen De Kooning or Jackson Pollock--in postwar American art, those were the heavyweight contenders. Pollock's drip paintings took art to a place beyond the brushstroke. The prestidigitations of de Kooning's brush summoned it back again. Even the powerful critic Clement Greenberg, who would turn against de Kooning for his failure to renounce figure painting, had to admit the guy's appeal. "De Kooning really took a whole generation with him," Greenberg once wrote. "Like the flute player of the fairy tale."
In De Kooning: An American Master (Knopf; 732 pages), you get a full sense of de Kooning's quiet charm and his rollicking genius. What you also grasp is his stupendous gift fOr self-destruction. Mark Stevens, the art critic for New York magazine, and his wife, writer Annalyn Swan, have produced a superb biography, thorough and surefooted. It's a book full of nuanced readings of de Kooning's work and sympathetic but dry-eyed accounts of his very disordered life, especially in the 1970s and '80s. Those were the years when he was treated as a national treasure, even as he plunged through the trapdoors of alcoholism and Alzheimer's disease. "A gorgeous wreck" is what they call him. Who can disagree?
When he arrived in New York City in 1926, he was 22, a stowaway on a freighter from Rotterdam, the Dutch port where he had been raised by an imposing, belligerent mother. In the U.S. he worked for years in commercial art before deciding, in the midst of the Depression, to emulate his friend Arshile Gorky and devote himself full time to painting, a choice that guaranteed him a hand-to-mouth existence. Fame arrived around 1950, the year he painted his magnificent, pulsing abstraction Excavation, a field of elbowing contours and a bravura rethinking of Cubist space.
To the astonishment of the art world, de Kooning then returned for a while to figurative painting. Woman I and the ferocious series of Woman canvases that followed were brutally funny emblems of male fear and desire, hellcats born not only out of ancient myth and American pop culture but also from de Kooning's personal supply of awe and anger. As Stevens and Swan make clear, throughout his life his dealings with women were heedless and narcissistic. Though he never divorced his wife Elaine--like him a painter and heavy drinker who slept around with abandon--he fathered a child by another woman, set up the occasional household with still others and carried on countless affairs. At one point he taught each of his girlfriends to ring his studio doorbell in a different way so he could tell which one was coming up.
De Kooning's moment of art-world pre-eminence was brief, from the death of Pollock in 1956 to the early 1960s, when the imperturbable cool of Pop began to make the surplus drama of Abstract Expressionism look dated and overwrought. To refocus his ambitions, he moved to the Hamptons, on the east end of Long Island. But isolation intensified his drinking problem. Whole months could be spent guzzling Johnny Walker Red. The worst bouts sent him to the hospital for weeks at a time. Much of his work from the '60s was inebriated--slack or shrill.