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De Kooning's Hidden Legacy

January 16, 2009

Behind the curtain of secrecy that descended over Willem de Kooning’s tragic last years, his estate has been settled, his art holdings partially liquidated, and market demand created for his controversial late works.


Like many great artists of his generation, Willem de Kooning led an exalted life that ended in tragedy. An alcoholic who struggled with binges and blackouts, the Dutch-born de Kooning left Manhattan in 1963 for Long Island, where he lived in increasing isolation until his death in 1997, at age 92. He picked up a paintbrush for the last time in 1990. For the last seven years of his life, he was completely debilitated by symptoms attributed to Alzheimer’s disease.

In 1989 de Kooning’s sole heir and only child, Lisa de Kooning, and John Eastman, the son of the artist’s longtime lawyer, Lee V. Eastman, were appointed his conservators by a state supreme court judge who found de Kooning unfit to handle his affairs. They filed a petition to have him declared incompetent ten days after the death of his wife, Elaine, who had overseen his care since the late 1970s. As the court proceedings made public de Kooning’s failing mental health, critics, art historians, and dealers began to question whether the hundreds of artworks he had created during the 1980s could be attributed entirely to him, or whether his assistants had intervened in their creation.

De Kooning’s dealer, Xavier Fourcade, died of AIDS in 1987. Many of the late works were still in the artist’s possession when he was declared incompetent two years later. Lisa and Eastman were faced with the problem of how to handle both a controversial body of work and a legendary artist who was uncommunicative and required round-the-clock care.

So began an epic endeavor to partially liquidate a dying master’s art holdings, create market demand for his final works, and provide Lisa with financial security. Three years ago, de Kooning’s estate was successfully closed. The taxes on it were paid, and the artworks in de Kooning’s possession when he died were divided between Lisa and a foundation established in the artist’s name.

But while de Kooning’s affairs were being handled, the public was largely left in the dark. Over the years, a sense of secrecy–beginning when de Kooning first showed Alzheimer’s disease in the 1980s––has pervaded the handling of his estate, as well as the purpose and art holdings of his foundation. Continue reading . . .

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