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The sad rhythms of a passionate, prolific life

De Kooning: An American Master
By Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan
Knopf, 731 pp., illustrated, $35

Like his countryman and fellow artist Vincent van Gogh, Willlem de Kooning had a movie-worthy, thoroughly miserable childhood. Like another countryman and artist, Piet Mondrian, de Kooning loved jazz and other aspects of the America of his imagination. And, like Mondrian, he moved to the United States, as a stowaway on a ship from his hometown of Rotterdam to an America he at first found disappointing for a Promised Land: jobs and studios were difficult to find; so was enough time to pursue his painting. He made his big move in 1926, when he was 22.

''The first art world superstar," Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan call him in their book ''De Kooning: An American Master." That seems a stretch, given flamboyant predecessors including Picasso and Pollock. Overall, though, the 731-page book is a triumph of research and putting the pieces together, a portrait not only of de Kooning, but of the moment when the center of the art world moved from Europe to New York -- along with many European artists.

The only thing lacking is enough illustrations. Some of the works discussed are in color; most images are in grainy black-and-white. There's no dearth of splashy coffee-table books on de Kooning's work around, though. It's helpful to have one or two at hand to consult while reading this biography.

And seeing de Kooning's achievement, if only in reproduction, helps get you through the book -- which is hard not because it's long, but because so much of it is so sad. Two decades after he arrived in New York, de Kooning bottomed out. For starters, his marriage to painter Elaine Fried was falling apart. She had abortions and affairs, and resorted to alcohol as a way to cope. Her strategy was to ''out-boy the boys," Stevens and Swan say. She was determined to be as free as they were, living her life as she chose, disregarding marital vows that male artists of the time decreed outdated.

In the late 1940s de Kooning was still so desperately poor that he couldn't afford paints made for art. So he and Franz Kline went to a commercial paint store and bought five-gallon cans of black and white paint. (They realized that house paint in colors would fade.) That was the beginning of one of his most important bodies of work: black-and-white paintings of compelling power. They made up his first solo show, presented by the dealer Charles Egan. None of the 10 works sold, although Egan kept them up months longer than originally intended.

The show did earn praise from such influential critics as Clement Greenberg, and months after it closed, there was a sale: For $700 the Museum of Modern Art bought the black-and-white work called simply ''Painting." MoMA's seal of approval launched de Kooning, and it was about time: He was 44. The next year, 1949, Life magazine put a photo of Jackson Pollock on its cover: Radical modern art was launched as a whole. And the year after that, de Kooning made what Stevens and Swan call ''one of the greatest paintings of the 20th century," ''Excavation," his answer to Picasso's ''Guernica" in its vast subject and uncompromising, slashing style. ''Excavation" was part of the US show at the Venice Biennale that year.

Then, instead of sticking to the black-and-white works that had become proven successes, de Kooning returned to the figure, to create the ''Women" series, his most famous and infamous works. Grotesque goddesses with ballooning breasts and ghoulish grins, they are the subject of endless debate. They're obviously not an exercise in simple misogyny; they're too complicated for that. But, as the authors point out, while Pollock paintings have long since lost their shock value, de Kooning's women are still profoundly disturbing.

The book goes into great detail about de Kooning's friends and competitors, his mistresses, his nights spent drinking at the now-legendary Cedar Tavern, his falling in and out of fashion and in and out of figuration. The well-known anecdotes are there, including the one about Robert Rauschenberg's request for a de Kooning drawing he could erase, a gesture meant to restart art with a clean slate. (De Kooning provided the younger artist with a drawing that was particularly difficult to obliterate.)

Almost as soon as de Kooning became king of the New York art world, pop art moved in, and de Kooning moved to the country, to the Long Island community of Springs. There he lived for a while with Joan Ward, the mistress with whom he'd had a daughter, Lisa. But the idyll didn't last. There was a repetitious rhythm to de Kooning's life that Stevens and Swan can't get around and perhaps, in the interest of being definitive, didn't want to. The cycle of painting, not painting, drinking, not drinking, and trading one woman for another is laid out in its fullest, made readable by the authors' graceful prose and the reader's appreciation of their integrity.

Late in his career, de Kooning began making sculpture, finding that he could translate those heroic individual brushstrokes into heroic slabs of bronze. Essentially, though, he was a painter. The late paintings were airy and free abstractions, joyous dancing lines in primary colors. Matisse supplanted Picasso as an influence. The critical response to the late paintings was negative, though: They weren't lauded as a lyrical update of Fauvism.

His last years were as unhappy as his childhood. Dementia set in almost a decade and a half before his death. As his health spiraled downward, so did his art. Critics lambasted the late paintings, many of them finished by assistants he directed. Finally, in 1990 he stopped painting. He lingered until 1997, when he finally passed away. At the end of their lengthy tome, Stevens and Swan sum up the sadness in just three words: ''De Kooning," they write, ''outlived himself."

Christine Temin is a member of the Globe staff.

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