Stevens, a critic, and Swan, a journalist, both with many years of experience in the art world, have done deep research, but they don't push it in our faces. We hear arguments among painters and critics and the street buzz about the development of Abstract Expressionism. But de Kooning's persistence as an outsider to almost any theory or definition -- he called theory 'baloney' -- sharpens our understanding of the era ... One of the great strengths of this book is its sense of an artist in his studio. At times the authors disappear, and rather than just read about de Kooning we watch him apply paint, scrape it off and attack again, trace sections of a painting and pin them on other parts to see how they work, stare at pictures for hours, destroy canvases, fly into rages of frustration and fling furniture about ... throughout this sweeping history there runs one of the most elusive love stories of the last century. Stevens and Swan weave it into their account as it occurred chronologically, but it stands out in the mind as floating above everything else. It is the story of de Kooning and the only woman his friends thought he ever fell in love with, the only one he married, Elaine...Here Elaine comes out as a very different person than all the popular versions. The book's take on her is right; her personality was larger than life, like de Kooning's.
Copiously researched and deftly crafted into a 600+ page turner, [De Kooning] is not only a powerful, convincing portrait of an extraordinary individual but an insightful analysis of the twentieth century American art world. The intelligently paced descriptions of art are lush and perceptive, and while focused on the life story are rarely egregious in their biographical determinism ... the kiss and tell aspect of this exhaustive study actually does tell us much about the man, as well as about changing patterns in the role of women in the art scene. Sometimes we learn as much about his state of mind from his housekeeping as from his love life. ... Pervasively sad though this biography is from troubled beginnings to pathetic decline, the portrait that emerges is of a compelling, handsome, winning, tender, determined man: after 600 pages we like our hero.
It all fits real good, don't you think?' the painter Willem de Kooning once asked his assistant while showing him a painting. The assistant concurred. 'That's the whole problem,' de Kooning replied. 'There's no contradictions.' As Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan brilliantly illustrate in their sweeping, authoritative biography, that idea was central to his nature ... The elusiveness of its subject makes the achievements of de Kooning: An American Master that much more dazzling ... a remarkably lucid narrative. Most unusually, it explores the details of a messy personal life without compromising its subject's dignity ... If their book is at times preternaturally thorough...Mr. Stevens and Ms. Swan justify that meticulousness. They look everywhere for the specifics that might have contributed to de Kooning's raging, ever-changing abstractions ... A lesser book would be more interested in the fact that he once nearly spiked his coffee with weed killer or other details of that nature. But de Kooning takes the high road. And it is smart and unflinching enough to earn its place there.