"I do not particularly stress the masculine or feminine point of view. I am concerned only with human values" (Willem de Kooning cited in Willem de Kooning from the Hirshhorn Museum Collection, exh. cat. Washington D.C. 1993, p. 53).
After moving into a new studio in Springs on Long Island in the early 1960s, de Kooning's paintings became heavily infused with a new fluidity and light that reflected the artist's new more pastoral environment away from the city and close to the sea. Man is a particularly strong work from an important series of paintings of human figures immersed in the light of this landscape, in which all the previous elements of de Kooning's art come together. Here, the artist's extraordinary facility with the brush and command over the fluid intensity of his material combine with his sensual response to the fleshy material nature of his paint and a fierce erotic vigor, to give a powerful and universal 'glimpse' of the way in which de Kooning both saw and felt the world around him.
Encapsulating the essence of de Kooning's love of paint as a material entity - 'flesh is the reason oil paint was invented' he once said - these paintings are in many ways physical reflections of how de Kooning saw. For, with their sweeping heavy, paint-laden brushstrokes smearing and pulling his fluid fleshy colors all over the surface, de Kooning manages to visually evoke a powerful sensation of the action that the artist himself underwent when marking each mark. Strongly visceral, as well as sensual these figure paintings are visually descriptive of the naked human figure but also, in the pull and play of the material that de Kooning has used, they are highly expressive of the feel and touch of flesh, and ultimately, of how it feels to be such a figure.
This strongly tactile approach to painting evoked in his work of the mid-1960s would ultimately lead to later experiments making clay figure sculpture between 1969 and 1972. In these works, the feel and impression of the hands into the soft malleable clay was used to a similar sensual effect to model extraordinary chthonic human figures that seemed to emerge and dissolve into the material in an almost primordial ecstasy of touch. Throughout all these works, the figure paintings and the later sculptures, there is one recurring image that persists, emerging and re-emerging in de Kooning's work as if an obsession. It is that of a squatting figure, legs splayed apart almost frog-like. Often seated over a small wooden stool, it is there in the fleeting image of Woman on a Sign I, and The Visit of 1967 as well as in the sculptures Untitled No. 2 of 1969 and Seated Figure on a Bench (1972), and it is also the central image of Man.
The origins of this figure seem to derive from de Kooning's great 1950 masterpiece Woman I. As de Kooning told Harold Rosenberg, 'Woman I reminded me very much of my childhood, being in Holland near all that water. Nobody saw it except Joop Sanders. He started singing a little Dutch song. I said, 'Why do you sing that song?' Then he said 'Well it looks like she is sitting there' The song had to do with a brook. It was a gag and he was laughing but he could see it. Then I said, 'That's very funny, because that's kind of what I am doing'. He said, 'That's what I thought'...it came maybe by association and I said, 'It's just like she is sitting on one of those canals there in the countryside' (H., 'Interview with Willem de Kooning', ArtNews, September 1972).
In these later works of the 1960s, this squatting pose is exaggerated more fully so that it becomes something more elemental and essentially animal. Echoing the pose of a woman with her legs held back as when giving birth, during sex or, as seems to be the case in this work, when squatting to urinate or excrete, this base, but uniquely human pose, powerfully expresses the intrinsically raw and bestial nature of the human animal. It is also a sexually ambiguous pose applying as much to male figures as to women and is put to full visceral effect in Man with the ape-like and presumably male figure shown to be both devouring and excreting at the same time.
Seemingly seated on a chair-like structure, this figure shown to be both penetrated by and excreting a swathe of brown paint, also devouring a luscious but ambiguous flesh-like form. The sensual enjoyment of the paint's fluid and corporeal qualities reinforces the overall sense of carnal pleasure running throughout this bold and powerful painting. In this respect, as in that of composition, it is appropriate that it is the supposed figure of Satan from Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly delights has been suggested as a possible precedent for de Kooning's monstrous but also sensual image of 'Man' (See H. F.Gaugh Willem de Kooning, New York, 1983, p. 83). Seated on a high throne and sharing the same beady eyes, Bosch's fantastical bird-headed creature simultaneously gorging and purging itself, though the absence of all allegory in de Kooning's portrait ultimately brings his earthy vision of man closer to that of his European contemporary Francis Bacon.
For de Kooning, the human figure lay at the root of all abstraction. "Even abstract shapes must have a likeness" he once pointed out and, even at its most abstract, he recognized that the movements and gestures he conjured in his own work inevitably related to the rhythms and arcs of his body and were therefore reflective of the human figure (Willem de Kooing cited in M. Stevens and A. Swan, De Kooning: An American Master New York 2005, p. 187). It was for this reason that de Kooning placed the figure at the heart of his experiments with abstraction. Without in any way being a self-portrait, Man is a work where these two very different elements of his work come together in a raw celebration of the feeling of being a man through the depiction of a man. Sumptuously reveling in the physical act of painting, de Kooning fluidly renders his vision of shifting light and color falling on and defining the corporeal reality of a human figure, also expresses his sensual delight in interacting with the material of paint and in making it speak. This perhaps more noble expression of man's power and ability to rise above and master his materials is also an integral part of the inherent existentialism of de Kooning's artistic statement about humanity in this strong visceral painting.
Oil on paper with thumbtacks laid down on canvas
Signed 'de Kooning' (upper right)
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning , 1960s, Paintings, Americas, Post War
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., De Kooning: Paintings and Drawings Since 1963, November-December 1967, p. 56 (illustrated).
Paris, M. Knoedler & Co., De Kooning: Peintures Recent, June 1968.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Untitled. 1968, November-December 1968, no. 12 (illustrated).
New York, Guggenheim Museum, Willem de Kooning in East Hampton, February-April 1978, p. 41, no. 12 (illustrated in color).
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Berlin, Akademie der Künste and Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Willem de Kooning: Drawings, Paintings, Sculpture, 1983-1984, p. 210, no. 225 (illustrated).
New York, Allan Stone Gallery, Willem de Kooning: Liquefying Cubism, October 1994-January 1995, no. 53 (illustrated in color).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
56 x 42 in. (142.2 x 104.1 cm.)
T. Hess, de Kooning: Recent Paintings, New York, 1967, p. 56 (illustrated).
"De Kooning's Derring-Do," Time Magazine, November 1967, pp. 34-35 (illustrated in color).
K. Stiles, "Untitled '68: The San Fran Annual Becomes an Invitational," Artforum, vol. 8, p. 51 (illustrated).
Drudi, Willem de Kooning, Milan, 1972, no. 134 (illustrated in color).
H. Gaugh, Willem de Kooning, Abbeville, 1983, p. 80, no. 69 (illustrated in color).
Annoymous, Album. Willem de Kooning Whitney Museum of American Art, Dec. 15.-Feb. 26.; Galerie Maeght Lelong, Dec. 16-Jan. 27, Arts Magazine, January 1984, illustrated.
Willem de Kooning, Kodansha, Tokyo, 1993, pl. 75 (illustrated in color).
Willem de Kooning Paintings, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, May-September 1994, p. 41, no. 8 (illustrated).
M. Knoedler & Co, New York
Acquired from the above, 1967