Robert Mapplethorpe

Willem de Kooning


Not on display

Robert Mapplethorpe 1946–1989
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Support: 476 × 471 mm
frame: 818 × 785 × 28 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008


This photograph shows the artist Willem de Kooning (1904–1997) in a head and shoulders shot, looking directly at the camera. His skin is freckled, his hair casually parted, and he is smiling slightly. He wears a white T-shirt, a large-collared, pale-coloured shirt, and a set of dark-coloured dungarees. His left dungaree strap rests on his shoulder, while the right strap has slipped down. The background, which is slightly out of focus, features a number of curved shapes with a painterly quality. A sweeping band just above de Kooning’s right shoulder is noticeably darker than the others, suggesting that the artist has been photographed in front of one of his own paintings.

Mapplethorpe was commissioned by the curator Richard Marshall to take photographs of artists residing in New York for the book 50 New York Artists, published in 1986. All fifty photographs were taken by Mapplethorpe and included sitters such as Keith Haring (Tate AR00207), Brice Marden (Tate AR00146) and Roy Lichtenstein (Tate AR00217). This portrait of Willem de Kooning was reproduced in the book alongside his painting Untitled IX 1985 (private collection). The portrait was also printed separately and it is this print that is held in the ARTIST ROOMS collection. At the time the photograph was taken de Kooning was a key player in the American art scene, having established himself as a prominent abstract expressionist in the 1940s and 1950s. It is not clear which painting features in the background of Mapplethorpe’s photograph, although it resembles contemporary works by de Kooning such as Rider (Untitled VII) 1985 (Museum of Modern Art, New York).

As with several of the other photographs included in 50 New York Artists, Mapplethorpe made his sitter’s identity as an artist apparent through both apparel and background. De Kooning is dressed casually, wearing an outfit that is almost workmanlike. By presenting de Kooning in studio attire, Mapplethorpe’s photograph has an almost documentary quality, as though the artist has been interrupted while working. There is perhaps also an element of sadness to the photograph, given that in 1986 de Kooning was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and beginning to lose his eyesight. However, de Kooning was still very much active as an artist at this time, something that Mapplethorpe conveys in this portrait.

In 50 New York Artists the photograph appears alongside a statement by de Kooning, which reads:

If you write down a sentence and you don’t like it, but that’s what you wanted to say, you say it again in another way. Once you start doing it and you find how difficult it is, you get interested. You have it, then you lose it again, and then you get it again. You have to change to stay the same.
(Quoted in Marshall 1986, p.34.)

De Kooning here describes the difficult process of self-expression, of seeking and finding the means to convey a message, a method that applies as much to painting as to words. The juxtaposition of words, photograph, and painting reproduced in 50 New York Artists provides a snapshot of de Kooning and his working methods at this late stage in his career.

Willem de Kooning marks a shift away from the sadomasochistic subject matter of much of Mapplethorpe’s work of the late 1970s. This and other photographs made in the early and mid-1980s – such as Robert Rauschenberg 1983 (Tate AR00216) and Roy Lichtenstein 1985 (Tate AR00217) – are less controversial. As Richard Marshall has suggested, these works ‘show a shift away from ... actively sexual imagery to a phase of refinement of subject and composition that emphasizes a classical, quiet, and formalized sense of beauty’ (Marshall 1988, p.14).

Further reading
Richard Marshall, 50 New York Artists: A Critical Selection of Painters and Sculptors Working in New York, San Francisco 1986, reproduced p.34.
Richard Marshall, Robert Mapplethorpe, London 1988.
Germano Celant, Mapplethorpe, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1996.

Thomas Flanagan
University of Edinburgh
November 2014

The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.

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Online caption

The Dutch-born American painter, Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), was, along with Jackson Pollock, the chief representative of the gestural form of Abstract Expressionism. Mapplethorpe portrays him as a benign ‘old-timer’ in his working overalls. As with his portraits of Brice Marden, Roy Lichtenstein and Francesco Clemente, it appears Mapplethorpe has photographed him infront of one of his own paintings.

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