The Rotterdam Academy of Fine Art accepted de Kooning as a student in 1916. In 1926 he stowed away on a British freighter, the SS Shelly, to Newport News, Virginia. He then went by ship to Boston, and took a train from Boston to Rhode Island. From there, he took another ship to New Jersey.
De Kooning made his living for a time as a house painter. Later, he was a teacher at Black Mountain College with John Cage, Buckminster Fuller and Josef Albers.
In the post World War II era, de Kooning painted in the area of abstract expressionism, sometimes labeled an action painter. Others in this movement include Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. Later, de Kooning experimented with other art movements.
De Kooning's parents, Leendert de Kooning and Cornelia Nobel, were divorced when he was about five years old, and he was raised by his mother and a stepfather. In 1916 he was apprenticed to a firm of commercial artists and decorators, and, about the same time, he enrolled in night classes at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques, where he studied for eight years. In 1920 he went to work for the art director of a large department store.
In 1926 de Kooning entered the United States as a stowaway and eventually settled in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he supported himself as a house painter. In 1927 he moved to a studio in Manhattan and came under the influence of the artist, connoisseur, and art critic John D. Graham and the painter Arshile Gorky. Gorky became one of de Kooning's closest friends.
From about 1928 de Kooning began to paint still life and figure compositions reflecting School of Paris and Mexican influences. By the early 1930s he was exploring abstraction, using biomorphic shapes and simple geometric compositions, an opposition of disparate formal elements that prevails in his work throughout his career. These early works have strong affinities with those of his friends Graham and Gorky and reflect the impact on these young artists of Pablo Picasso and the Surrealist Joan Miró, both of whom achieved powerfully expressive compositions through biomorphic forms.
In October 1935 de Kooning began to work on the WPA (Works Progress Administration) Federal Art Project. He was employed by this work-relief program until July 1937, when he resigned because of his alien status. This period of about two years provided the artist, who had been supporting himself during the early Depression by commercial jobs, with his first opportunity to devote full time to creative work. He worked on both the easel-painting and mural divisions of the project (the several murals he designed were never executed).
In 1938, probably under the influence of Gorky, de Kooning embarked on a series of male figures, including Two Men Standing, Man, and Seated Figure (Classic Male), while simultaneously embarking on a more purist series of lyrically colored abstractions, such as Pink Landscape and Elegy. As his work progressed, the heightened colors and elegant lines of the abstractions began to creep into the more figurative works, and the coincidence of figures and abstractions continued well into the 1940s. This period includes the representational but somewhat geometricized Woman and Standing Man, along with numerous untitled abstractions whose biomorphic forms increasingly suggest the presence of figures. By about 1945 the two tendencies seemed to fuse perfectly in Pink Angels. In 1946, too poor to buy artists' pigments, he turned to black and white household enamels to paint a series of large abstractions; of these works, Light in August (c. 1946) and Black Friday (1948) are essentially black with white elements, whereas Zurich (1947) and Mailbox (1947/48) are white with black. Developing out of these works in the period after his first show were complex, agitated abstractions such as Asheville (1948/49), Attic (1949), and Excavation (1950; Art Institute, Chicago), which reintroduced color and seem to sum up with taut decisiveness the problems of free-associative composition he had struggled with for many years.
In 1938 de Kooning met Elaine Marie Fried, later known as Elaine de Kooning, whom he married in 1943. She also became a significant artist. During the 1940s and thereafter he became increasingly identified with the Abstract Expressionist movement and was recognized as one of its leaders in the mid-1950s. He had his first one-man show, which consisted of his black-and-white enamel compositions, at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York in 1948 and taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1948 and at the Yale School of Art in 1950/51.
de Kooning had painted women regularly in the early 1940s and again from 1947 to 1949. The biomorphic shapes of his early abstractions can be interpreted as female symbols. But it was not until 1950 that he began to explore the subject of women exclusively. In the summer of that year he began Woman I (located at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City), which went through innumerable metamorphoses before it was finished in 1952.
During this period he also created other paintings of women. These works were shown at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1953 and caused a sensation, chiefly because they were figurative when most of his fellow Abstract Expressionists were painting abstractly and because of their blatant technique and imagery. The savagely applied pigment and the use of colors that seem vomited on his canvas combine to reveal a woman all too congruent with some of modern man's most widely held sexual fears. The toothy snarls, overripe, pendulous breasts, vacuous eyes, and blasted extremities imaged the darkest Freudian insights. He also had many paintings that seemed to hearken back to early Mesopotamian / Akkadian works, with the large, almost "all-seeing" eyes.
The Woman' paintings II through VI (1952-53) are all variants on this theme, as are Woman and Bicycle (1953; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) and Two Women in the Country (1954). The deliberate vulgarity of these paintings contrasts with the French painter Jean Dubuffet's no less harsh Corps de Dame series of 1950, in which the female, formed with a rich topography of earth colours, relates more directly to universal symbols.
By 1955, however, de Kooning seems to have turned to this symbolic aspect of woman, as suggested by the title of his Woman as Landscape, in which the vertical figure seems almost absorbed into the abstract background. There followed a series of landscapes such as Police Gazette, Gotham News, Backyard on Tenth Street, Parc Rosenberg, Suburb in Havana, Door to the River, and Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point, which display an evolution from compositional and coloristic complexity to a broadly painted simplicity.
About 1963, the year he moved permanently to East Hampton, Long Island, de Kooning returned to depicting women in such paintings as Pastorale and Clam Diggers. He re-explored the theme in the mid-1960s in paintings that were as controversial as his earlier women. In these works, which have been read as satiric attacks on the female anatomy, de Kooning painted with a flamboyant lubricity in keeping with the uninhibited subject matter. His later works, such as Whose Name Was Writ in Water and Untitled III, are lyrical, lush, and shimmering with light and reflections on water. He turned more and more during his late years to the production of clay sculpture.
In the 1980s de Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and a court declared him unfit to manage his estate, which was turned over to conservators. As the style of his later works began to take on an abrupt change, his vintage works drew increasing profits; at Sotheby's auctions Pink Lady (1944) sold for US$3.6 million in 1987 and nterchange (1955) brought $20.6 million in 1989. His wife, the former Elaine Fried, died from lung cancer, aged 70, in 1989.
There is much debate over the relevance and significance of his later paintings, which became clean, sparse, and almost graphic, while alluding to the biomorphic lines of his early works. Some say his mental condition and attempts to recover from a life of alcoholism had rendered him unable to carry out the mastery indicated in his early works, while others see these late works as prophesizing the clean, surface-oriented painters of the 1990s and 21st century - and having a direct correlation to contemporary painters such as Brice Marden. Still others who knew de Kooning personally claim that his late paintings were being taken away and sold before he was able to finish them.
Willem de Kooning has served as inspiration for the Welsh band Manic Street Preachers for three songs: "Interiors (Song for Willem de Kooning)", "His Last Painting" (about his battle with Alzheimer's), and the song "Door to the River" (named after the painting).
The first full-length biography of the artist, titled de Kooning: An American Master, was published by Knopf in late 2004. Its authors, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, received the Pulitzer Prize for biography.