Arshile Gorky's Influence
on the Early Paintings
of Willem De Kooning

Lauren Foster
Montclair State University

Senior Thesis
Spring 2006


It is difficult to overemphasize the influence that Arshile Gorky had over the art of Willem de Kooning. From the time they first met in the late twenties, the two men shared a close friendship in which Gorky's artistic ability and philosophies both encouraged and guided the direction of de Kooning's art. Although they grew apart in the mid-forties, De Kooning never denied the impact Gorky had on his work. He expressed only words of admiration and love for the artist who had fundamentally given him the motivation to make art the center of his life by becoming an artist.  Gorky's impact on de Kooning is best summarized when de Kooning said, I met a lot of artists; but then I met Gorky.[1]

Although Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning's training in art were greatly varied, it has been suggested that they came from a common origin: the two friends held passionate discussions about what art should be and, as a result, their earlier works express many of the same themes. While most other American artists were trying desperately to break away from the traditions of European art, both de Kooning and Gorky strove to assimilate these traditions and, from there, they were able to create their own, intensely personal art.

Although de Kooning's artwork is, without question, profoundly original, he had a disciple-like friendship with Arshile Gorky that significantly contributed to the development of his own artistic ideals and standards at the time. These standards were crucial to de Kooning's artwork of the thirties and early forties: during this time, he employed and customized the Gorky's concept of combining certain elements of past and contemporary masters.

In order to understand this concept more clearly, I will first provide a brief introduction to the circumstances of both de Kooning's and Gorky's pasts, as well as an introduction to general atmosphere of New York at the time they became friends. This will help to explain the reasons de Kooning followed Gorky so closely. I will then review artists that Gorky and de Kooning considered to be masters, most notably Ingres, Cezanne, Miro, and Picasso. Here, I will examine how they applied the masters' ideas and techniques into their own art.

De Kooning was born on April 24, 1904 in North Rotterdam, Holland. His childhood was extremely unstable, and he remembered it as one of great loneliness. He was born into the harsh life of a working class family and, from 1899 to 1904, the year de Kooning was born, his parents lived in seven different apartments [2].

When the artist was five years old, his parents divorced: they had begun fighting bitterly and, as records would suggest, probably violently [3]. Shortly after, de Kooning's father remarried a woman who ignored her children. De Kooning and his older sister, Marie, both contended that she was the reason for increasing their distance from their father, whose relationship with the artist eventually became virtually nonexistent [4].

Even more damaging than his neglectful father, de Kooning's opinionated and volatile mother regularly wreaked mental and physical abuse unto her children. The young artist told friends that she would have screaming fits and hit him and his sister with wooden shoes, sometimes even locking them in a closet [5]. De Kooning, who was stubborn and unyielding, had no choice but to fight his mother: as the authors of his biography understand it, she would otherwise have consumed him completely [6].

Like de Kooning, Gorky also experienced harsh struggles and terrible suffering before moving to New York City from Armenia in 1920. At a young age, Gorky was very close with his mother and his sister, Vartoosh. Although he had a relatively happy childhood before the outbreak of World War I, he was violently abused by his thirteen-year-old cousin, who was hired to be his tutor [7].It is also likely that Gorky was deeply affected by the departure of his father to America when he was five: He abruptly left his family and failed to send money and tickets that would have enabled them to join him in America, leaving Gorky and his siblings feeling abandoned [8].

Fighting in Armenia broke out when Gorky was ten years old. The Turks entered World War I on the side of Germany and laid siege to the Armenians within their borders, claiming that they were traitors to the state [9]. By 1915, the fighting had produced forced marches and near starvation throughout Armenia. Gorky's mother died in his arms of starvation, leaving sixteen-year-old Gorky and his younger sister without a parent [10]. Soon after, the artist and his sister left Armenia to live in the United States with their father, whom they barely recognized upon arrival [10].

In a way, both de Kooning and Gorky were orphans: their parents were either dead or were painfully absent form both of their lives, leaving them both with issues of abandonment and solitude. In addition to this, Gorky's teenage years were shaped by extreme violence that can be compared to the severe beatings of de Kooning's mother. Both artists also had a similar, very dependant relationship with their sisters at some point: they were their sole providers of love and support. These themes almost certainly contributed to the formation of de Kooning's and Gorky's close relationship. Although de Kooning rarely spoke of his childhood, he probably had an implicit respect and sympathy for any other who had experiences of such trauma in the early years of their life, i.e. Arshile Gorky.

Gorky and de Kooning had another important connection to each other: they were both immigrant artists whose home countries were integrated within their artwork. This undoubtedly contributed to the closeness of de Kooning and Gorky's friendship: de Kooning felt the most removed from non-immigrant American artists such as Stuart Davis, who could not provide the same personal model that [Gorky or John Graham] could [11].Consequently, de Kooning must have felt a special closeness to fellow artist immigrants who were able to sympathize with and encourage the need to express an appreciation for their cultural heritage.

De Kooning only returned to Holland twice after he immigrated to America in 1926. He almost never conversed in Dutch and rarely spoke of his childhood at all [12]. However, themes of water and the harbor became a prevailing theme in many of his paintings. He told the art critic Harold Rosenberg that, There is something about being in touch with the sea that makes me feel good … That's where most of my paintings come from, even when I made them in New York [13]. Furthermore, in the later years of his life, especially in the years that his Alzheimer's disease began to affect him, he loved to visit any place with a lake, river, or ocean. This probably reminded him of the few happy memories of his early childhood when he hung around in the harbors of Rotterdam.

As Cynthia Jaffee McCabe stated in her book, The Golden Door: Artist Immigrants of America, perhaps no other major American painter’s career was more strongly rooted in his foreign background than Arshile Gorky's [14]. Like de Kooning, Gorky used the few pleasant memories he had of his childhood and home country in a nostalgic way. Gorky's series of paintings entitled The Plough and the Song (1947) makes the connection between human and agricultural fertility that was made by the farmers of the happier times of his youth [15]. Both de Kooning and Gorky gave up some of their home country's traditions in an effort to become more American [16].However, neither artist seemed to have had a desire to completely remove elements of their pasts from their paintings. The fact that both of these artists were immigrants must have contributed to their friendship in some way.

The American middle class and its institutions (including museums) were viciously opposed or aggressively indifferent to all the best in American Modern art [17]. Since there was virtually no market for their work, American artists in New York stuck together, thus enforcing and strengthening influential interaction within their relationships. The close friendship between Gorky and de Kooning from the mid 1930s to the mid 1940s was thus relatively typical for artists living in New York City at this time.

Although the Depression years are considered a miserable era of American history, it was an enormously joyful and productive period for the young men and women of the decade, especially for artists, writers, and their friends. As Thomas Hess explains it, It was one of those rare moments in history when nothing interfered with the discussion; there were no sales, exhibitions, careers…A sense of collegiality and mutual respect marked the community; ideas could be debated seriously with respect for different opinions … [Artists] stayed together because they found that they could become their own audience [18].

President Franklin D. Roosevelt set up the Public Works of Art project that eventually led to the Federal Art Project under the Works Progress Administration or the WPA [19]. The project allowed artists to paint with little or no distraction because it guaranteed payment for the creation of large-scale artworks for public buildings.Because most of these projects were collaborations between two or more artists, their daily meetings on the job encouraged contacts that cut across aesthetic positions and produced a constant exchange of ideas, generating a sense of community [20].

It is for these reasons that several art discussion groups were formed, including the Ten (including Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb), and the American Abstract Artists. Although their group was much more informal, De Kooning, Gorky, Stuart Davis, John Graham and David Smith, formed their own support group. They met casually at the cafes (usually Romany Marie's and the Jumble Shop) in Greenwich Village to discuss their developing styles and solutions to problems they ran into as artists [21]. This probably brought de Kooning and Gorky together by giving them more opportunities to discuss ideas and opinions about modern arts such as Picasso and Matisse.

It has been suggested that when they became close friends, Gorky filled de Kooning's need for a brotherly or fatherly role model. Although they were very close in age (de Kooning was born in 1904 and Gorky in 1900), Gorky came to America at least six years earlier than de Kooning and evidently knew much more about being an American artist. As we shall see, Gorky also provided de Kooning with much of his artistic ideas at the time. Gorky's natural artistic ability gave de Kooning someone to look up to, like a brother. It has even been suggested in several sources that in his drawing, Self Portrait with an Imaginary Brother.

In the next section of this paper, I will discuss the reasons for Gorky’s dominance in his relationship with de Kooning. Among these reasons are his naturally authoritative personality and his gift for art in spite of having very little academic training. While de Kooning’s admiration for Gorky was a reason for Gorky's dominance in their relationship, these reasons were undoubtedly contributed to de Kooning’s respect for Gorky.

Part of the reason for Gorky's leadership was his naturally dominant personality. Gorky’s friends described him as being quite egocentric and even cocky. Although de Kooning was stubborn, his general mannerisms have been described as very humble [22].Thus, their very different personalities did not seem to have an adverse effect on their friendship. In fact, sometimes it seems that it may have strengthened it:

Gorky was notoriously dismissive of other people's art . . . De Kooning remembered him coming up to an artist who was having an opening and giving such exaggerated praise that it was clear that he was being sarcastic. 'My,' he'd say in a loud voice. 'What faces! What expressions!' De Kooning recognized Gorky's rudeness but loved him anyway. 'He didn't care,' said de Kooning. Gorky had 'no feelings, socially.'[23]

Although Gorky had much less academic training in art than de Kooning, he was generally considered the leader of their group of friends. While de Kooning's training was complete and detailed, Gorky was essentially self-taught. In spite of this, de Kooning still followed the words and actions of Gorky almost much like an apprentice. De Kooning was fascinated by Gorky's skill and natural ability at creating art.

When de Kooning finished primary school, he was employed at the highly prestigious decorating firm, Gidding and Sons [24]. A year later he enrolled in the Academie van Beeldende Kunsten en Technische Wetenschappen in Rotterdam, or the Royal Academy, where he received enough classical training that would have pleased Raphael [25]. Here, he completed a six-year drawing program of rigid teaching methods and curriculums.

While it is possible that Gorky was jealous of de Kooning's training, De Kooning did not become a full time artist until 1934, after meeting Gorky. The formation of the WPA and the general atmosphere of New York was probably a great contributor to his long list of reasons to make this risky decision. However, Gorky's great influence on de Kooning was probably a deciding factor. His first visit to Gorky's studio in 1932 had a profound impact on the young de Kooning: Gorky, who treated his studio as a kind of sacred space, left de Kooning overwhelmed and made 'dizzy' by the atmosphere [26]. In addition to inspiring de Kooning to create works as good as his, Gorky also helped him understand that a serious artist made art the center of his life and treated it as a calling and sacrificed everything else to it [27]. In turn, shortly after his friendship with Gorky strengthened, de Kooning quit his job making window displays for the department store, A.S. Beck, and became a full-time artist.

Unlike de Kooning, Gorky had no formal training in art as an adolescent. He did not even to decide to become an artist until he began painting when he first came to America and was staying in Watertown, Massachusetts.He did, however, briefly attended the Scott Carbee art school and, shortly after, Boston's New School of Design in 1922. It was at this time that he changed his name from Vosdanig Manoog Adoian to Arshile Gorky, which means literally means bitter in Russian [28]. As his 2003 biography explains, this was a major break with Armenian origins. He chose a Russian name because he always felt that Russians had saved Armenia: they had rescued the population of Van City in 1915, and when Russian Armenia became a Soviet republic in 1920, the Russians fostered its development into a modern country [29]. He then enrolled and began to teach at Connah's New School of Design and later Grand Central School of Art and, when his talent was recognized, he taught drawing there as well. Although Gorky had these three years of academic training in Boston and New York, he was never trained to the point that de Kooning was at the Royal Academy.

While Gorky had much less training than de Kooning, de Kooning adopted many of Gorky's methods of working. This was probably a result of de Kooning's deep admiration for Gorky's natural artistic ability and dedication to his work. Like Gorky, de Kooning would scrape painted surfaces with razorblade or sandpaper to achieve a specific finish [30]. In addition to this, Gorky's obsession with having a clean studio also rubbed off on de Kooning, who, like Gorky, would scrub down his studio at least once a week and keep all of his brushes in perfect condition [31].

To train himself, Gorky became engrossed in a self-imposed apprenticeship. His works and ways of thinking during this period are important because this was a time when de Kooning and Gorky were closest and the time that he would have had the most influence on de Kooning. As previously mentioned, Gorky followed earlier and contemporary painters, especially Cezanne, Picasso, and Ingres. Jean-Luc Bordeaux, who has written an article that analyzes Gorky's formative period (1925-1937), explains that these studies were a sort of initiation of Gorky to modern art [32]. In the next section of this paper, I will examine the idea that de Kooning was also strongly influenced by these artists. I will also discuss the possibility that Gorky's emulation of these artists was one of the primary reasons that there are elements of the same artists in de Kooning’s work at the time.

As Melvin Lader explains in the article, Graham, Gorky, de Kooning, and the Ingres Revival in America, the nineteenth century artist, Ingres, probably had the most powerful influence on de Kooning's and Gorky's circle of friends. As early as the mid-twenties, Gorky was an enthusiastic devotee of Ingres and had large, life-size reproductions of both Uccello and Ingres covering the walls of his studio. He would measure the quality of the paintings he was working on by comparing them to these reproductions, which served as a sort of model of excellence [33]. Gorky said once of Ingres, Ingres had his own delicate line. At times I resent him...but oh, how I would like to draw like Ingres [34].

Ingres's ideas can be found in many of Gorky's earlier paintings in that he employed his imagination to venture into the realm of the abstract beyond stagnant physical appearance [35]. Ingres, for example, would often exaggerate or modify naturalistic anatomy in order to avoid the angularity of certain body parts, like elbows or knees. He also had a tendency to depict his subjects in a space of limited depth by flattening the figure thus producing a static quality that is enigmatically timeless or psychologically mysterious [36]. In Gorky's paintings of the mid-twenties and early thirties, when he was most influenced by Ingres, he used the natural world as a point of departure and, from there, captured what could be seen within the imagination. The result of this method is an eerie stillness that produces the effect of a heightened form of reality similar to the paintings of Ingres [37].

Gorky's Portrait of Master Bill

Like Gorky, De Kooning felt that Ingres had an almost overwhelming gift for painting and readily admitted to the great impact that Ingres had on his paintings at the time. He said in a 1958 publication, I used to make imaginary portraits from Ingres and the Le Nains (I never did make copies; I don’t think I’d be able to.) [38]. Although Ingres had undoubtedly influenced De Kooning directly, de Kooning did not exhibit an Ingriste influence until the late thirties [39]. There is evidence here that he may have gotten some of these characteristics from his close friend, Arshile Gorky, who had been using similar methods from as early as the mid-twenties. Melvin Lader suggests that Gorky could have given de Kooning the idea to solve certain problems in his paintings by employing these Ingriste techniques [40].

Ingres' Portrait of M.Riviere

Gorky's Portrait of Master Bill of 1937 (figure 1), and De Kooning's Seated Man of 1939 (figure 2) present an interesting example of this idea. Gorky's painting, which is thought to have been a portrait of de Kooning, is very similar in pose to the 1805 Ingres painting Portrait of M. Philibert Riviere(figure 3). The position of the subject's arms, his cropped and crossed legs, the type of chair, and the turning of the head seem to create a mirror image of the work [40]. In addition to this, Gorky's interest in Ingres's ability to create an intense stillness is conveyed through the detached expression of the figure and through M. Riviere's slightly uncomfortable pose.

de Kooning's Seated Man

Seated Man demonstrates this same uneasy stillness characterized by the melancholic gesture of the figure and the finely drawn line that defines the subject's neck and arms [41]. In addition to this, the lack of modeling in the man's body and the subject's placement close to the foreground reflects Ingres' tendency to depict his sitters in a shallow, compressed space. Although the man's distant facial expression does not quite match Ingres' painting, it goes along with Ingres' importance of capturing a moment of time.This this particular painting actually seems to have more in common with Gorky's Portrait of Master Bill, which shares the same lonely, detached facial expression.

Gorky's Staten IslandAs Bordeaux explained, Cezanne was Gorky's first love [42]. In the morning, Gorky would study reproductions of Cezanne's landscapes and then, after scaring away intrusive onlookers, set up his easel in Central Park. After the sunset, he would go home and compare his landscape with those by Cezanne [43]. The small landscapes and still lives created in this period demonstrate a profound understanding Gorky's tendency toward a painterly sensuousness that made him one of the greatest brush-handlers alive [44]. Here, Cezanne has taught Gorky to utilize looser, less systematic brushstrokes.

Gorky's paintings from about 1927-28 have much in common with Cezanne's works. Herrera points out that even in the 1940s, Gorky's handling of forms in space recall Cezanne's way of inviting the eye to move back and forth between the painting's surface and the illusion of depth [45]. As an example, in Gorky's landscape, Staten Island (figure 4), he uses short and carefully placed strokes of paint to render the illusion of depth to unite the composition of the painting. During this time, Gorky also made paintings of sculptures on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through the use of Cezanne's stress on linear continuities across the canvas surface between objects that are at different spatial depths [46].

de Kooning's Two Men Standing

De Kooning, too, exhibited some influence from Cezanne. Although he was definitely exposed to Cezanne at an earlier date, direct influence does not come into play in de Kooning's paintings until about 1938, during his friendship with Gorky. Clear examples of this influence can be found in his paintings Two Men Standing (figure 5) of 1938 and in Glazier of 1940 (figure 6). The folds of the pant leg in the man standing on the left of Two Men Standing show a noticeable attempt to both flatten the picture plane and to show depth at the same time, while the men's chests are similarly modeled using flat planes of color. de Kooning's GlazierCezanne's influence is even more obvious in Glazier: the use of flat planes of color are used to render the folds of the tablecloth and creases in the pants of the figure [47].

Gorky considered living painters such as Picasso and Miro the newest masters before most of his contemporaries acknowledged them as such. He thought of these contemporaries as even greater artists than the ones of the past: [Picasso] are greater artists than the old masters. Five years later he said Has there in six centuries been better art than Cubism?[48] Consequently, he employed the art of these contemporary masters within his paintings as he did with the masters of the past. De Kooning also exhibited similar influences of the same artists. This indicates that he probably talk about and studied these same artists with Gorky and was consequently inspired by Gorky's influences [49].

Probably one of the most obvious common influences on Gorky and de Kooning (and most other artists of the time) was Picasso. In the later half of the 1930s, de Kooning and Gorky's conversations never strayed far from Picasso [50]. The two painters often stood in front of Picasso's paintings and analyzed how the forms work structurally [51]. The two artists noted how Picasso brought together cubist and surrealist ideas, something both younger artists also did in their own ways. Gorky believed Picasso to be a modern touchstone and as the one indispensable artist that is necessary to understand on an almost a moral basis [52].

Throughout the thirties, Gorky often imitated Picasso's style very closely and, jokingly, his friends would call him Picasso of Washington Square [53]. In spite of this, Gorky showed no remorse. As Harold Rosenberg said of Gorky in 1937, When some important paintings [by Picasso] arrived in New York in which the Spaniard had allowed the paint to drip, artists at the exhibition found a chance for their usual game of kidding Gorky. 'Just when you’ve gotten Picasso’s clean edge,' one said in mock sympathy, 'he starts to run over.' 'If he drips, I drip,' replied Gorky proudly [54].

While Gorky was copying Picasso almost exactly, Picasso's cubism had a strong influence on de Kooning's approach to composition from the late thirties and throughout the rest of his career. De Kooning said that he liked the style's unsure atmosphere of reflection [55]. Besides cubism, there are also clear influences of Picasso's earlier styles, especially the rose period in de Kooning's paintings of men.

Besides the more evident formal ideas of composition, color, and form, De Kooning's biography explains that what de Kooning and Gorky most brought out of Picasso's work was his powerful, romantic sense of self. Picasso was always Picasso even as he made and remade his work and styles. By this I mean that although his works changed dramatically and he had many different phases, it was always possible, in one way or another, to tell that Picasso was their creator: Picasso's 'self' seemed to flow effortlessly from his hand, as naturally as a spring, creating an inimitable touch and space [56]. Like Picasso, De Kooning and Gorky would go on to create works that were distinctly their own.

Picasso probably shaped Gorky's love of the idea of ambiguity, which, in turn fueled de Kooning's interest in the uncertainty of life and art. Graham and Gorky, who both loved ambiguity, felt that nothing was, or should be, certain about painting [57].It is almost certain that the three artists spoke of these ideas at their meetings in Romany Marie's and the Jumble Shop [58]. During and after these talks, de Kooning began to talk about how he loved ambiguity above all else. He liked what could not be explained: Gorky called it magic [59].

Picasso also did not reject the art that came before him, just as Gorky and de Kooning did not reject the art that came before them. As de Kooning's biography states, Picasso could be a man of the present without abandoning the past [60]. As we have seen, Gorky used aspects of and sometimes copied directly the art of past masters to eventually do the same thing. De Kooning's faith in Gorky's methods probably reaffirmed by de Kooning's adherence to the past.

Although Picasso played an important role in both Gorky and de Kooning's artwork, they still had intensely individual ideas about what aspects of Picasso's art were most significant. A mutual friend best stated this idea: Of their discussions at the Waldorf Cafeteria, Bill de Kooning would talk about his Picasso, and Gorky talked about his Picasso [61].

Miro was also a great inspiration to both Gorky and de Kooning. In the early thirties, when Gorky was following Picasso's art very closely, he often softened that master's severity with lilting rhythms inspired by Miro. Miro was the only other artist to supersede (only momentarily) Picasso as a dominant influence in both Gorky and de Kooning's artwork [62]. According to a friend, de Kooning was simply nuts about Miro [63].

de Kooning's ElegyIn de Kooning's paintings, Miro's influence can be seen most clearly in his early abstractions of the late thirties and early forties (figure 7). Here, de Kooning simplified still-life motifs by rendering objects in the form of large, flat planes. They are often outlined and sometimes lightly brushed, while the thinly curved lines tracing the forms are similar to Miro's. In addition to this, Miro's concept of painterly space can also be seen in these paintings. The ambiguous space is also in common: the viewer is unsure if the solid backgrounds of Miro and de Kooning's paintings are close, or far [64].

Gorky's Garden in SochiAround 1936, Gorky turned away from painting portraits and began painting biomorphic abstractions [65]. Although these paintings clearly indicate emulation of Miro's Cubist-oriented Surrealism, Miro's influence can be seen most easily just before the development of Gorky's mature style beginning in around 1940 and especially in his early Garden in Sochi series (figure 8). Like Miro's paintings, the images are precisely edged, paper-thin, planes silhouetted against flat backgrounds [66].

De Kooning once said that If the book keepers think it necessary continuously to make sure of where things and people come from, well, then, I come from 35 Union Square. [the address of Gorky's studio] [67]. It is known that de Kooning and Gorky (and sometimes John Graham) would often work on pictorial problems together. Knowing this, it is likely that de Kooning was fully aware of the methods Gorky employed to solve problems in his work.Because of his faith in Gorky's skills, it is possible that de Kooning followed Gorky's example to employ methods of the artists he studied to solve his own pictorial problems.

Surrealism also had a great influence on the art of both Gorky and de Kooning. This was probably due to the fact that several European surrealists including Max Ernst, Andre Mason, Yves Tanguy, Matta Echaurren and Andre Breton moved to New York City to escape the violence of World War II in the early forties, making their art and ideas more accessible to American artists. The surrealist concept of automatism (i.e. the irrational and the elements of chance and accident) especially interested de Kooning. As it did for other New York based artists, automatism liberated painters of the burgeoning New York School from the external world of reality and freed their art from conscious control, allowing them to explore the inner universe and subconscious [68]. Although he places each brushstroke in his paintings very carefully, De Kooning's method of working was generally improvisational, giving process a fundamental role in the creation of his paintings.

Gorky was much more directly and importantly influenced by surrealist paintings. In his paintings of the early and mid-forties, he depicts male and female genitalia, employing the Surrealist obsession with sexuality. More importantly than this, as Sandler suggests, Surrealists gave Gorky the confidence to rely on his own intuition, insights, an experiences [69].

de Kooning's Pink Angels

De Kooning's painting, Pink Angels of 1945 (figure 9), most easily exhibits Surrealism's influence on his work at the time. Here, the artist pulls fragments of female figures and collages apart and mold them into a new, less legible form. De Kooning has used the Surrealist obsession with sexual content with the subject matter through its references to sexual anatomy. The contemporaneous painting The Unattainable (figure 10) by Arshile Gorky relates to the sexuality expressed in Pink Angels, but in a more blatant depiction of both male and female genitalia. Gorky's imagery is more flamboyant and complex, fraught with Freudian meaning, while de Kooning's appears to be a simple repertory of shapes grafted onto other formal systems [70].

While both artists do employ sexual references in their paintings during the same time, Gorky seems to be much more directly influenced by Surrealism. Gorky was said to have had a much greater interest in surrealism than de Kooning: he was not only interested in surrealist ideas, but also in befriending the very snobbish, cliquey surrealists [71]. This idea can be understood in terms of the disintegration of Gorky and de Kooning's friendship in mid-forties. When they stopped hanging out so much, art that influenced Gorky did not influence de Kooning as much as it had in the thirties and early forties.

Gorky's The Artist and his Mother

De Kooning's Two Men Standing of 1938 (figure 5) and Gorky's The Artist and His Mother (figure 10), made almost ten years earlier, from 1926 and 1929 best illustrates the relationship that Gorky had on de Kooning's artwork. In a technical sense, the paintings are very similar. Both paintings depict two figures with a similar handling of the figure. They both show influence of Picasso's cubism with the rendering of detached and simplified body parts. Elements of Cezanne's method of modeling are also depicted in both paintings with the careful placement of flat planes of color to form folds of clothing. The gaze of all four depicted figures is also similar: they share the same distant and blank pupils. In addition to this, both artists employed the same scraping technique in their paintings in which they scraped painted surface with a razor blade or sandpaper and repainted them to make the smooth finish.

In a deeper sense, the paintings share similar discription of each artist's interaction with others. The relationship between Gorky and his mother and the relationship between the two men in de Kooning's painting seem strangely similar: each figure seems distant from the other while, at the same time a longing for closeness to each other is also conveyed. The figures' wide, black eyes present a similar, sorrowful detachment, while the unfinished quality of each painting further conveys this same melancholic disconnection.

Judging from the similar ideas both de Kooning and Gorky employed in their artwork, it seems as though Gorky provided a starting point for de Kooning's painting during the time of their friendship. The combination of Gorky's natural leadership and de Kooning's admiration for Gorky's artwork gave de Kooning the drive he needed to not only to become an artist, but also to formulate his own idea of what art should be.Gorky's adherence to the continuity with past and present masters undoubtedly inspired de Kooning to be one of the only abstract expressionists to adhere to representation of figure and to become one of the most personal art of the time. It is for these reasons that Gorky's impact remained indispensable to even the most inventive and personal of Willem de Kooning's artwork.



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Yard, Sally. Willem de Kooning's Men. Arts Magazine. 56, no. 4 (Dec. 1981): 134-43.
Zwerin, Charlotte. De Kooning on De Kooning. Produced by Courtney Sale Ross. 55 min. Cort Productions,1982. Videocassette.



  1. Stevens 2005, 97
  2. Stevens 2005, 9
  3. ibid.
  4. ibid., 11
  5. ibid., 10
  6. ibid., 12
  7. Herrera 2003, 37
  8. ibid., 39
  9. Stevens 2005, 234
  10. ibid., 100
  11. Herrera 2003, 11
  12. ibid., 93
  13. Stevens 2005, 8
  14. Stevens 2005, 3
  15. McCabe 1976, 134
  16. Herrera 2003, 29
  17. Hess 1968, 25
  18. Hess 1968, 18
  19. Sandler 1970, 5
  20. ibid., 7
  21. ibid., 20
  22. Stevens 2005, 76
  23. Herrera 2003, 174
  24. Stevens 2005, 19
  25. ibid., 26
  26. ibid., 97
  27. ibid., 99
  28. Herrera 2003, 170
  29. ibid., pg 118
  30. Waldman 1988, 32
  31. Stevens 2004, 140
  32. Bordeaux 1974, 94
  33. Lader 1978, 97
  34. Herrera 2003, 189
  35. Lader 1978, 89
  36. ibid., 95
  37. ibid., 97
  38. ibid., 98
  39. ibid.
  40. ibid.
  41. ibid., 96
  42. ibid.
  43. Bordeaux 1974, 98
  44. Herrera 2005, 138
  45. ibid.
  46. Herrera 2005, 136
  47. ibid., 138
  48. Yard 1981, 139
  49. Sandler 1970, 44
  50. Stevens 2005, 137
  51. ibid., 140
  52. ibid., 107
  53. Yard 1981, 47
  54. Sandler 1970, 47
  55. Stevens 2005, 137
  56. ibid., 138
  57. ibid., 108
  58. ibid., 135
  59. ibid., 137
  60. ibid., 138
  61. ibid., 192
  62. Herrera 2003, 176
  63. Stevens 2005, 137
  64. Sandler 1970, 47
  65. ibid, 54
  66. Lader 1978, 98
  67. Stevens 2005, 108
  68. Waldman 1988, 48
  69. Sandler 1970, 52
  70. Waldman 1988, 55
  71. Stevens 2005, 209