Authenticating a Willem de Kooning work

Hickory Museum of Art has had an education program for most of its existence because of Founder and first Director Paul Whitener’s strong belief in its importance, principally for children. HMA’s present-day education program is still primarily focused on children, though a significant number of classes are regularly offered also to adults. Additionally, HMA staff works with local higher education institutions, including Lenoir-Rhyne University, CVCC and others.

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)  Untitled , no date mixed media on paper Gift of Barbara & Peter Falotico, 2013.18

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
Untitled, no date
mixed media on paper
Gift of Barbara & Peter Falotico, 2013.18

During the fall semester 2018, Claire L. Pope, Assistant Art Professor and Art Program Coordinator at Lenoir-Rhyne University, brought some of her students to HMA for a tour. As a special take-away assignment, the students were asked how they might figure out the authenticity of HMA’s unsigned and Untitled work attributed to Willem de Kooning. Determining if the work was truly a de Kooning presented an intriguing issue for the students, especially since professionals can spend decades developing the expertise to recognize an artist’s works. Additionally, the students did not have access to the scientific advantages modern experts use to recognize a work.

In an art world context, making sure that an unsigned piece of art is actually created by the artist to whom it is attributed can take several routes. The most appealing to buyers and dealers is obtaining a Certificate of Authenticity from the artist that says “yes I did create this work.” The Provenance, that is, the ownership history of a work, is also immensely important in establishing authenticity. If neither is available, the word of individuals who have extensively worked with artworks by the supposed artist usually counts. Forensic evidence (that is, such as the chemistry of the paint) is also coming into play more often.

The Lenoir-Rhyne students chose yet another of the professional approaches to authentication, which is to analyze the known style and materials of the artist compared with the observable style and materials of the work in question. Ultimately the students concluded that the assigned work is indeed a de Kooning, drawing their conclusions from the style of de Kooning’s other works, his influences, his life experiences, and his health and well-being at different points in his career.

He was influenced by Henri Matisse, John Graham, Arshile Gorky, and Fernand Leger, yet he didn’t follow their style but created his own style. … One interesting idea that shows the painting that’s related to [de Kooning] is the type of the painting, with the strong red, black, and grey, presents the emotion of anger. This shows the connection with him where he is famous with his Women Series, that oftentimes shows angry vigor.

He began a series of black and white abstractions in the mid 1940’s as well. These works are what established his reputation. At the end of the decade he started allowing color into his works .. [This painting] is a violent distortion and abstraction of a woman. It has quick messy strokes and is mostly black and white with a little bit of red color.

…referring back to the white portions of the piece, as material analysis studies have shown, de Kooning tended to use charcoal for his outlines, which he later painted over. What further reiterates this fact is that the lines are not necessarily static (straight, perfectly round, etc.) but rather they seem to be partially blended dependent on where he began to aggregate the paint onto the paper.

I believe this piece was not created in the 1960’s but rather in the 1980’s when de Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. This condition causes one to lose their memory and essentially progress into the darkness and nothingness of the human mind. … [However],One’s passions, love, and drive are what pushes a person to move on although they are withering.

There is in fact no doubt that Unsigned is by de Kooning, as authenticated by documentation in HMA’s files; but the students did not know this prior to their own explorations.

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Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) was a founding member of the post–World War II Abstract Expressionist movement in American painting Born and educated in the Netherlands, at age 24 he stowed away on a ship headed for America and ended up in New York City where he developed as an artist. In 1935 he was chosen to create murals for the WPA (Works Progress Administration); though when it was later discovered that he was not an American citizen, the assignment was withdrawn. He hired an apprentice, Elaine Fried, who eventually became his wife as well as an artist in her own right. de Kooning meanwhile went on to be mainly known for his abstract paintings of women. In the 1980’s, onset of Alzheimer’s disease severely impaired his ability to work, though he kept painting until his death.

With thanks for contributing research by Appalachian State University student and HMA intern Kelly Dickinson, and for the generous use of the course papers by Maria Vallejos, Ivan Milliken, Sophia Chung, and Emily Kenley.

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This post is # 26 of the 75 stories to celebrate HMA's 75 years.

Post by Karin Borei, HMA Project Coordinator, writer and editor as needed, and HMA blogger since our blog's inception in March 2015.