Bookmarks Issue: 

An American Master

A-DeKooningStevens and Swan, established art critics, spent a decade researching and writing their hefty biography of the legendary abstract expressionist painter, Willem de Kooning. Today, de Kooning is as revered as Jackson Pollock: both painters’ frenetic energy and unprecedented use of brush and color made their New York stomping grounds the center of the art world in the mid-20th century. Drawing on previously unearthed letters and documents and dozens of new interviews, the authors shed light on de Kooning, the man who left Holland as an impoverished stowaway in 1926, struggled with success, and finally upended notions of art with his bold works of chromatic beauty.
Knopf. 752 pages. $35. ISBN: 1400041759

Baltimore Sun 4 of 5 Stars
"Exhaustively researched, richly textured and sympathetic biography of an unlikely American master. … This is a breathtaking, heartbreaking, and intimate account of an artist’s life and times that could well become the definitive biography of one of America’s greatest modern masters." Glenn McNatt

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"To tell [this] story on an appropriate scale, Stevens and Swan have given us a clear and candid biography that is itself Balzacian in scope." Hilton Kramer

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"This is a book that traces de Kooning’s history, puts him on Freud’s couch, plumbs the mysteries of his cryptic and ever-changing work, and follows the arc of modern art through much of the 20th century, fusing all these elements into a remarkably lucid narrative. Most unusually, it explores the details of a messy personal life without compromising its subject’s dignity." Janet Maslin

San Jose Mercury News 4 of 5 Stars
"Written with journalistic verve, the book is chock-full of anecdotes about the lives of de Kooning and his comrades. But it also explains in cogent, artspeak-free terms the nature of the painter’s contributions." Jack Fischer

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"One of the virtues of this outstanding biography is its authors’ healthy respect for the mysteries of the creative process. … The last 35 years of Willem de Kooning’s life are a sad and chaotic yet heroic story, told by Stevens and Swan with unfailing compassion." Joyce Johnson

Critical Summary

Critics unreservedly praise Stevens’s and Swan’s opus as a masterpiece in art writing, a landmark biography, and a fascinating look at early 20th-century New York. Several laud the writers’ meticulous research and eloquent style, and most appreciate the balance with which the authors explore de Kooning’s more human aspects, such as chronic infidelity and probable Alzheimer’s Disease. Reviewers single out this tome as a gripping read for both fans of the painter and the uninitiated.