Kind. Generous. A sweet spirit. Expressions of that ilk dotted the pages of Facebook last weekend, as news of the death of Lisa de Kooning spread. The only child of the man heralded as one of the most important artists of the 20th century died in the Virgin Islands Friday, where her family had a home on St. John. The cause of death has not been officially determined, but was rumored to be a fall.
Born on January 29, 1956 in New York, Johanna Liesbeth de Kooning was the daughter of Willem de Kooning and the illustrator Joan Ward. Known as Lisa, she grew up in Manhattan and Springs, where she maintained a home and stewardship over her father's famed studio off Woodbine Drive. With Christian Villeneuve, she had three daughters, Isabel, Emma, and Lucy.
Growing up the child of an artist is "tough," recalled Mike Solomon, son of the influential abstract artist Syd Solomon. Solomon's family was part of the same circle of artists as the de Koonings, and he remembered meeting Lisa when both were quite small. "I remember the first time I saw her, we were about six. She was a real wild spirit," Solomon said affectionately.
In later years, that wildness carried forth, but as she matured, Solomon said, he was pleased she established her family and had children, who became a focal point of her life. Describing life as an artist's child -- "I wouldn't wish it on anybody" -- Solomon said, "That she managed to stay human, and quite kind is pretty amazing. I thought it was heroic for her to get married and have children. But she was really into it and a really good mother. I was proud of her for doing what she did."
Very active at Springs School, Ms. de Kooning was additionally altruistic. According to Sue Ellen O'Connor, a veteran Springs educator, "Lisa contributed a tree in honor of her father to the school. She often invited classes to tour her father's studio and conducted guided tours for the students. She led a ceramics class of one of her daughter's classes at the studio as a field trip. She donated prints of books to the library. She participated in a film her daughter Lucy made when she was in fifth grade: "Portrait of My Grandfather" by Lucy.
One classmate of Ms. de Kooning's daughter recalled play dates at the house where there was "a whole menagerie – ponies, pigs, chickens, rabbits. She'd drive the kids around in that wagon, with the pony."
Her love of animals was evident in her own art. In 2009 she showed, reportedly for the first time publicly, sculptures of animals cast in bronze. One report of the opening at Tripoli Gallery of Contemporary Art in Southampton noted she brought her dog and a parrot named Lulu to the event. The parrot rested on Lisa's arm, or atop one of the sculptures.
It's very difficult to be the offspring of a famous artist and to make art, Solomon recalled. But, he said, "She made it her own and the content was very different from Bill's." Solomon characterized Ms. de Kooning's sculptures as "terrific."
Willem de Kooning produced well over a thousand works over the course of his decades-long career. Many of them are still in his daughter's collection in a trust she established. A second foundation in his name also preserves his legacy.
Remembered by friends for her sweet and kind nature, -- society photographer Barry Gordin recalled: "Lisa was always so much fun to be with and a shining light on our social circuit, keeping her fathers legacy alive and vibrant. Her presence will be dearly missed," -- she will also be remembered for extensive philanthropic efforts.
A memorial crafted by the Johanna Liesbeth de Kooning Trust this week notes the wide range of causes she supported. "The causes closest to her heart were art, children and animals, raising money for and donating to Boys and Girls Harbor, Art for Animals, the Isamu Noguchi Foundation, and local East End charities and art programs, such as the East Hampton Day Care Center, Ladies Village Improvement Society, Springs Fire Department, Longhouse Reserve and Robert Wilson's Byrd Hoffman Water Mill Foundation.
"In recent years, after establishing a home in St. John, she became active in its local causes, contributing to the Virgin Islands National Park and to Team River Runner's Wounded Veterans USVI program. Like her father, however, she did not confine her generosity to established charities. Ms. de Kooning will be remembered not only for her commitments to the arts and her local communities, but for her spontaneous expressions of good will and kindness toward those she encountered in daily life."
And it was spontaneity evident even in childhood. Said O'Connor, who knew her since she was just five years old and took riding lessons from her, "Lisa often told the story that when she was attending Springs herself, she brought her pony Freddy on "show and tell" day. She walked him up the front steps and into the classroom. She was an original."
The funeral service will be private.