Throughout his oeuvre, the female figure was the touchstone in de Kooning's integration of figurative elements within the Modernist picture plane, creating a mature style in which he embraced both figuration and abstraction in a manner unique among his contemporaries. The mid-century was a period during which painters challenged the role of art and expanded the boundaries of what art depicted. De Kooning's pivotal role as a leader during this time centered on his refusal to abandon the human figure while at the same time creating one of the most influential styles of Abstract Expressionism. De Kooning's insistence in the late 1940s and early 1950s on the validity of figuration as well as abstraction mystified some of his contemporaries, yet de Kooning had a natural antipathy to conforming to codified movements, whether from the past or his present. In his famous 1951 discourse on What Abstract Art Means to Me, de Kooning disapproved of European Modernist art's tendency to state "not so much what you could paint but rather what you could not paint." (Museum of Modern Art Bulletin, vol. XVIII, no. 3, Spring 1951, pp. 4-8). He cited instead Marcel Duchamp's art as open and liberating, allowing each artist to pursue his own desires. Also, de Kooning was a very practical sort, as reflected by his love of the tactile nature of oil, just as much as in his straight-forward approach to content.
The icon of de Kooning's oeuvre is his massive and startling Woman I (1950-52), which challenged the art world from its first viewing in 1953 and was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art that same year. Yet, the female figure arguably plays a more important role in his oeuvre as a mutable and fertile presence - one that serves as a testing ground for his investigations of the moment, moving forward as every artist wishes to do toward the next inspiration, the next insight.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, de Kooning painted a series of Seated Women, a classic motif throughout art history from Giotto's Madonnas to Picasso. De Kooning's early figures sit lightly in relative composure with soft features reminiscent of Ingres. Modernity intrudes in his distorted proportions and his palette of intense almost jarring green, pink, and orange. Throughout the 1940s, Surrealism and Cubism is the forum within which de Kooning merged figure and ground, rendering Women that shift at sharp angles with jagged outlines within a foreshortened perspective.
In the 1950s, the impact of de Kooning's violently abstracted and newly confrontational Women struck a visceral chord with the public. Whether bursting within a large canvas or the more intimate space of Figure in Landscape I, the raw animation of de Kooning's standing Woman of the 1950s captured the energy and tumult of post-war American society in general, and the tensions and ferment of American Abstract Expressionism in particular. This re-examination of a familiar motif proclaimed anew de Kooning's role as "the supreme painterly painter of the second half of the century and the greatest painter of the human figure since Picasso." (David Sylvester in Exh. Cat., Washington, D. C., National Gallery of Art, Willem de Kooning Paintings, 1994, p. 25 and footnote 15, p. 180).
Figure in Landscape I is a vivid expression of this iconic theme translated through the energy and frenetic movement of de Kooning's application of oil paint to paper. The rich colors of the artist's palette exhibit unique hues of green, yellow and reddish-orange. The furied black outline clearly reveals the female form, with her heavy hung breasts, elongated torso and large, curvy thighs. The colors are at once powerful and moving and project the single woman figure as a being of strong and bold nature, and the sharp contour of the heavy black line separates the figure from the surrounding landscape, while expertly melding them into one at the same time. In the same contradictory fashion, colors blend sublimely while they also visually explode.
Figure in Landscape I is believed to be the sister work to Figure in Landscape II, 1951, which was once in Joseph Hirshhorn's private collection and today hangs in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D. C. as part of their permanent collection. Both works - executed in the same year, and the only two works like this in existence- are classic testaments to de Kooning's genius for figure/ground composition, his abiding love for the commonalities of paint and flesh, and his ability to revisit motifs throughout his oeuvre with a willingness to reinvent himself.
Oil and enamel on board mounted on fiberboard
Willem De Kooning
24 1/2 x 14 1/2 in. 62.3 x 36.8 cm.
Harriet Janis and Rudi Blesh, De Kooning, New York, 1960, fig. no. 26, p. 51, illustrated
Sally Yard, Willem de Kooning, the first twenty-six years in New York, New York, 1980, fig. no. 256, illustrated
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
Stephen Hahn Gallery, New York
Private Collection, New York (acquired from the above in 1960)
Gift to the present owner from the above in 1962