Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Willem de Kooning

Dutch-born American Abstract Expressionist Painter

"The trouble with being poor is that it takes up all your time."

"An artist is forced by others to paint out of his own free will."

"An artist is someone who makes art.... He didn't invent it."

"And then there is that one-man movement, Marcel Duchamp — for me a truly modern movement because it implies that each artist can do what he thinks he ought to — a movement for each person and open for everybody."

"Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure. I always seem to be wrapped up in the melodrama of vulgarity. I do not think ... of art as a situation of comfort."

"Artists themselves have no past. They just get older."

"At sixteen I stopped work and became a bohemian."

"At the academy in Rotterdam we were all under the influence of de Stijl. This was in the early twenties. We weren't at all interested in pure art, or in the person who earned his living being an artist. The Stijl group obviously encouraged our feelings. A modern artist, according to them, was not at all somebody who painted nice pictures ... He was an expert, a designer for example or somebody in publicity. And so I didn't have a wish at all to become a painter."

"But one day, some painter used ‘Abstraction’ as a title for one of his paintings. It was a still life. And it was a very tricky title. And it wasn’t really a very good one. From then on the idea became something extra. Immediately it gave some people the idea that they could free art from itself. Until then, Art meant everything that was in it – not what you could take off it. There was only one thing you could take out of it sometime when you were in the right mood – that abstract and indefinable sensation, the aesthetic part – and still leave it were it was."

"Certain artists and critics attacked me for painting the ‘Woman’, but I felt that this was their problem, not mine. I don’t really feel like a non-objective painter at all… …It’s really absurd to make an image, like a human image. With paint, today, when you think about it, since we have this problem of doing it or not doing it. But then all of a sudden it was even more absurd not to do it. So I fear I have to follow my desires."

"Content is a glimpse."

"Even abstract shapes must have a likeness."

"Every so often, a painter has to destroy painting. Cezanne did it, Picasso did it with Cubism. Then Pollock did it. He busted our idea of a picture all to hell. Then there could be new paintings again."

"Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented."

"For me a truly modern movement because it implies that each artist can do what he thinks he ought to – a movement for each person and open for everybody. (remark on the individualistic Surrealism by Marcel Duchamp)"

"For really, when you think of all the life and death problems in the art of the Renaissance, who cares if a chevalier is laughing or that a young girl has a red blouse on."

"He [Norman Rockwell] probably had the same compassion for me like he does for the people in his pictures."

"I admit I know little of Orient art. But that is because I cannot find in it what I am looking for, or what I am talking about. To me the Oriental idea of beauty is that ‘it isn’t there’. It is in a state of nor being there. It is absent. That is why it is so good. It is the same thing I don’t like in Suprematism, Purism and non-objectivity.. ..I do like the idea that they - the pots and pans (in the old still lives) , I mean – are always in relation to man. They have no soul of their own, like they seem to have in the Orient.."

"I am always in the picture somewhere. The amount of space I use I am always in, I seem to move around in it. And there seems to be a time when I lose sight of what I wanted to do, and then I am out of it. If the picture has a countenance I keep it. If it hasn't, I throw it away."

"I don't paint to live, I live to paint."

"I don't paint with ideas of art in mind. I see something that excites me. It becomes my content. (1959)"

"I feel sometimes an American artist must feel, like a baseball player or something - a member of a team writing American history."

"I had a lot of trouble getting [to America]... Every time I hid out on a ship, they found me, or the boat wasn't going anywhere."

"I make a little mystique for myself. Since I have no preference or so-called sense of color, I could take almost everything that could be some accident of a previous painting. Or I set out to make a series. I take, for instance, some pictures where I take a color, some arbitrary color I took from some place. Well, this is gray maybe, and I mix the color for that, and then I find out that when I am through with getting the color the way I want it, I have six other colors in it, to get that color; and then I take those six colors and I use them also with this color. It is probably like a composer does a variation on a certain theme. But it isn’t technical, it isn’t just fun."

"I feel now if I think of it, it will come out in the painting. In other words, if I want to make the whole painting look like a bottle, like a lot of bottles - for instance maybe the end of the day, when everything is very light, but not in sunlight necessarily - and so if I have this image of this bottle and if I really think about it, it will come out in the painting. That doesn’t mean that people notice a bottle, but I know when I succeed in it – then the painting would have this."

"I had my own eyes, but I wasn't always looking in the right direction. I was certainly in need of a helping hand at times. Now I feel like Manet who said, "Yes, I am influenced by everybody. But every time I put my hands in my pockets I find someone else's fingers there.""

"I might work on a painting for a month, but it has too look like I painted it in a minute."

"I make pictures and someone comes in and calls it art."

"I met a lot of artists – but then I met Arshile Gorky. I had some training in Holland, quite a training, the Academy. Gorky didn’t have that at all. He came from no place; he came here (US) when he was sixteen, from Tiflis in Georgia, with an Armenian upbringing. And for some mysterious reason, he knew lots more about painting and art – he just knew it by nature… He had an extraordinary gift for hitting the nail on the head; very remarkable. So I immediately attached myself to him and we became very good friends. It was nice to be foreigners meeting in some new place."

"I never was interested in how to make a good painting.. But to see how far one can go."

"I paint the way I do because I can keep on putting more and more things in — like drama, pain, anger, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas of space. It doesn't matter if it differs from mine, as long as it comes from the painting, which has its own integrity and intensity."

"I see the canvas and I begin... It's a necessary evil to get into the work, and it's pretty marvelous to be able to get out of it."

"I'd like to get all the colors in the world into one painting."

"If I stretch my arms and wonder where my fingers are – that is all the space I need as a painter."

"I think I’m painting a picture of two women but may turn out to be a landscape."

"I still think that Boccioni was a great artist and a passionate man. I like El Lissitsky’s painting very much. But Mondrian that great merciless artist, is the only one who had nothing left over. The point they all had in common was to be both inside and outside at the same time. A new of likeness!.. ..for me to be inside and outside is to be in an unheated studio with broken windows in the winter.."

"I was reading Kierkegaard and I came across the phrase 'To be pure is to will one thing'. It made me sick."

"I thought Mondrian was phenomenal. He made paintings that were wholly new, that didn't exist."

"I'm not someone who's ever said anything definitive about his work. In my life also I have very little fixed form. I can change overnight."

"I wish I hadn’t. I was so modest then that I was vain. Some of them were good, a part of the real me. Just as Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters is good, as good as anything he painted later in the ‘true’ Van Gogh style. [on destroying his early works]"

"If you're an artist, the problem is to make a picture work whether you are happy or not."

"In art, one idea is as good as another. If one takes the idea of trembling, for instance, all of a sudden most art starts to tremble. Michelangelo starts to tremble. El Greco starts to tremble. All the Impressionists start to tremble."

"In the days before de Kooning establishing himself formally as a painter, Willem de Kooning had a variety of experiences that helped him to define himself. His influences by friends and the times were surprising. Of the singular influences was his relationship to music: "In the early thirties, ... de Kooning made one astonishing and symbolic purchase. Just when the Depression was destroying the livlihood of millions of people, including that of many artists, de Kooning bought the best and most expensive record player money could buy - a miraculous machine that could summon "God and all those angels up there." Called a Capehart high-fidelity system, it was one of the first to change records automatically. It cost then prodigious sum of $700, more than half of de Kooning's annual salary at A.S. Beck; he got an advance to pay for it. With this purchase, de Kooning announced that he would not use this money to make himself conventionally respectable, even during the hard, early years of the Depression. He did not buy a house or a car, get married, have a baby, or stash away money against hard times. Instead, he professed himself sublimely irresponsible, a man nourished by music rather than mundane realities. And yet, it was still music rather than art that prompted his expansive gesture, for he could not yet find a comparable fluency, vitality, or extravagance in art."

"In the Italian Renaissance… there was no ‘subject-matter’. What we call subject matter now, was then painting itself. Subject matter came later on when parts of those works were taken out arbitrarily, when a man for no reason is sitting, standing or ling down. He became a bather, she became a bather; she was reclining; he just stood there looking ahead. That is when the posing in panting began… For really, when you think of all the life and death problems in the art of Renaissance, who cares if a Chevalier is laughing or that a young girl has a red blouse on."

"It seems like a lot of artists, when they get older, they get simpler."

"It's really absurd to make ... a human image, with paint, today, when you think about it.... But then all of a sudden, it was even more absurd not to do it."

"It was mentioned that I was one of his influences. Now that is plain silly. When, about fifteen years ago, I walked into Arshile's studio for the first time, the atmosphere was so beautiful that I got a little dizzy and when I came to, I was bright enough to take the hint immediately. If the bookkeepers think it necessary continuously to make sure of where things and people come from, well then, I come from 36 Union Square [Gorky's studio]. It is incredible to me that other people live there now. I am glad that it is about impossible to get away from his powerful influence. As long as I keep it with myself I'll be doing all right. Sweet Arshile, bless your dear heart."

"Kandinsky understood ‘form’ as a form, like an object in the real world; and a object, he said, was a narrative – and so, of course, he disapproved of it. He wanted ‘his music without words’. He wanted to be ‘simple as a child’. He intended, with his ‘inner-self’ to rid himself of ‘philosophical barricades’ (he sat down and wrote something about all this). But in turn his own writing has become a philosophical barricade, even it is a barricade full of holes. It offers a kind of Middle European idea of Buddhism or, anyhow, something too theosophical for me."

"Maybe ... I was painting the woman in me. Art isn't a wholly masculine occupation, you know. I'm aware that some critics would take this to be an admission of latent homosexuality ... If I painted beautiful women, would that make me a non-homosexual? I like beautiful women. In the flesh -- even the models in magazines. Women irritate me sometimes. I painted that irritation in the Woman series. That's all."

"Man’s own form in space – his body – was a private prison; and that it was because of this imprisoning misery – because he was hungry and overworked and went to a horrid place called home late at night in the rain, and his bones ached and his head was heavy."