Sail Cloth is one of the small group of outstanding 'abstract' paintings made in the late 1940s with which Willem de Kooning made his name as the leading painter of his generation. Representing the culmination of over twenty years' experimentation with a variety of styles and influence, these paintings mark the artist's dramatic leap forward into the then uncharted realm of 'pure' painting. Invoking and celebrating the spontaneity and excitement of the act and process of painting, it was these paintings that prompted the critic Harold Rosenberg to coin the term 'Action Painting' as a potential description of the new movement then emerging in New York. Forming the essence of what soon came to be termed "Abstract Expressionism," this small group of paintings are regarded by many to be not only the finest of all de Kooning's works but also among the greatest painterly achievements of the Twentieth century.
Along with undisputed masterpieces like Attic, and Excavation, Sail Cloth is one of only a few paintings from 1949 that built on the startling developments of the 'black and white' paintings of 1948 to form the culmination of de Kooning's first, almost completely abstract style. Immediately prior to his later more overt (and controversial) reintroduction of the figure in his Women series of 1950, these paintings mark the apotheosis of nearly twenty years development.
The defining moment of de Kooning's dramatic breakthrough came at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York in April 1948 when, at the age of 44, he held his first one-man show to widespread critical acclaim. The paintings de Kooning exhibited on this occasion marked a radical departure from anything he or, indeed, anyone else had ever made before and were to set the pattern of his art for the next two years. Now known as his 'black and white' paintings, the works de Kooning presented at the Egan gallery were two-tone abstractions executed in the swift and very fluid medium of household enamels. Seemingly devoid of figuration and/or representational imagery, these works were nevertheless full. Dense, compressed and alive with fluid lines and dark powerful, suggestive forms, they seemed to hover in a painterly netherworld halfway between conventional abstraction and figuration, expressing what de Kooning once described as a 'glimpse' of something that he had as much felt as witnessed or seen. Packed amidst the thousand 'decisions and revisions of decisions' that evidently had gone into the building of his pictures, de Kooning's art seemed to express something of the energy, emotion, chaos, violence, immediacy, congestion and excitement that a modern urban environment such as Manhattan instills in the lone human being. Pregnant with implied meaning yet seemingly devoid of content, the extraordinary paintings that de Kooning produced at this time, appeared, at a stroke, to have answered many of the most pressing questions and anxieties over the future of painting then facing the American avant-garde.
These paintings of the late-1940s were a radical development from de Kooning's great earlier works in the decade such as Pink Lady of 1944 or Pink Angels of 1945 where the artist had sought to integrate figuration and abstraction through deliberate distortion and a flattening of form - often using ways that echoed the abstracting tendency of formative influences on his work such as Picasso, Miró and Gorky. In the 'black and white' paintings and other works that de Kooning made between 1948 and 1950, such formalistic considerations were abandoned in favour of a fluid, immediate and semi-automatic approach to painting that thrived on the ambiguity and paradox of the supposed figurative-abstract divide. Intentionally creating works that questioned the relevance of either term ('figurative' and 'abstract') the content of de Kooning's new paintings seemed to be only that of painting itself and the life, emotions, thoughts or actions of the artist while engaged in his work.
In order to attain this new, pure and open-ended approach to painting de Kooning had adopted a novel semi-automatic approach to the way in which he constructed his paintings. It had essentially been the Surrealists' introduction of automatism and chance in their work that had inspired many artists of the New York School to elevate the process of painting to the level of its subject matter, content or style in the first place. In particular Miró's transformation of the objects of life into ambiguous and evocative signs had played a major role in the development of both de Kooning and Gorky's distorting of form in the 1940s. Now, refuting the use of abstraction towards the essentially mystical end of transcendence (as adopted by Rothko or Newman for example), de Kooning drew on the spontaneity of automatism and on chance configurations as a way of generating paintings that conveyed, through the viscosity of their own medium, the vitality and immediacy of tangible corporeal life. De Kooning achieved this remarkable feat primarily through a conscious and premeditated disruption of his own lyrical and masterly ability with line. Like many artists, de Kooning was suspicious of his own mastery fearing the ease with which such mastery can slip into a style that is mannered, tired and stale. Struggle and the evidence of struggle formed the essence of de Kooning's art at this time. To keep his eye sharp and his hand fresh, in his paintings of the late 1940s, he developed a technique of painting from multiple drawings layered over one another. The layering of these often torn or fragmentary drawings created collage-like configurations in which the original meaning and integrity of the single image was lost amidst a strange conglomerate whole that teemed with a fascinating and spontaneously created vitality. De Kooning would then paint from these forms, holding up new drawings against the canvas, often turning them round and painting over both surfaces until their startling configurations seemed to somehow hold or maintain some kind of struggling balance within the framework of the painted whole.
As numerous films of de Kooning at work reveal, however, these paintings were not arrived at in sudden and spectacular gestural flourishes but through a slow and painstaking process of deliberation. The incorporation of spontaneity and chance into his work encouraged de Kooning to free-associate and allowed him to remain open to any possibility, but unlike the Surrealists before him, he did not allow chance or accident to take over authorship or control over the development of his paintings.
Denying pure abstraction and disrupting figuration to the point where it becomes abstract, de Kooning's radically new approach to painting placed the artist and both the process and moment of creation at the heart of his work. The problem of painting's content, for so long the subject of intense debate amongst the Abstract Expressionists had seemingly been solved, or, at least, sidestepped by these works. They are a painterly expression of the artist's struggle to create an autonomous work that asserts only what it is. Open-ended, demonstrable records of the artist's struggle as well as of his more-or-less spontaneous actions and reactions, these works seemed, as Harold Rosenberg wrote, to have "broken down every distinction between art and life." (Harold Rosenberg, "The American Action Painters Art News 51, December 1952, p. 23)
Sail Cloth belongs to the extraordinary group of paintings created between 1949 and 1950 that were made in response to the 'black and white' paintings of 1948. Many of these, in particular, such legendary works as Attic, Attic Study, Zot and to a certain extent Excavation were a conscious attempt at reversing the predominantly black over white of the earlier paintings by using heavy white laid over black schematics. Sail Cloth, along with Gansevoort Street, Asheville and Boudoir, of 1950 is one of the most colorful of these late 1940s paintings, its tone, form and color echoing something of the distorted passages in Pink Angels of 1945.
Almost unique in de Kooning's work, it was painted in the summer of 1949 while de Kooning was holidaying in Provincetown, Massachussets. As its title suggests, its sweeping lines and twisting curves of form to some extent echoes the blustering movement and ever-changing form and outline of sails in the wind. Its warm and gently changing fleshy tones also single it out from de Kooning's other paintings of this period. As de Kooning's biographers, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan have pointed out, it is therefore tempting to see in this work both a reawakening of the 'powerful sensations of the sea" that had once proved so vital to him in Rotterdam, and an 'anticipation' of his emigration from the city to the country in the early 1960s.
Despite the apparent absence of subject de Kooning's paintings of this time, the titles of de Kooning's pictures often attest to 'glimpses' of either the human figure or a specific place or sense of place. It was a common practice of de Kooning's at this time to walk the city streets of Manhattan late at night until early morning, wandering amongst its architecture, often amongst friends, observing the architectural curiosities of metropolitan life. Many of his paintings reflect this sense of dislocated or meandering wandering within the contexts of a more rigid, larger urban structure. Indeed, Clement Greenberg once attempted to define this aspect of de Kooning's work by describing it as attempting to marry painterliness onto the faceted infrastructure of analytical Cubism. By contrast, the meandering of line that takes place in Sail Cloth, does appear more open, natural and lyrical, perhaps reflecting the environment in which it was made.
Pervading all of de Kooning's work however is very physical sense of experience lived through the body. Each of his often graceful articulating lines, however meandering or seemingly descriptiveless it appears, is self-evidently imbued with the immediacy and command of the corporeal energy that went into making it. All of de Kooning's works therefore, no matter how abstract, or ethereal they may at first seem, carry with them a very corporeal sensuality rooted in the physical nature of the human. Sail Cloth, with its contrasting warm and cool flesh tones fluctuating throughout the composition is no exception and in addition to its more open and airy feel and it sense of being at ease, also asserts itself as a strong example of de Kooning's unique integration between abstraction and corporeality.
Echoing in places the strange conglomeration of form that had gone into Pink Angels, it also, in its freer painterliness and strange insertion of a human eye at the centre of the composition, anticipates the artist's later Women series. Such facial features as the eyes or, particularly, the mouths of figures, (the fatalistic, "terrifying" grins of Hollywood goddesses like Marilyn Monroe, as de Kooning once referred to them), served de Kooning as an important figurative crutch and key compositional element around which he felt he could work with more fluency and ease. In 1948, in the painting Mailbox de Kooning had positioned these 'cut-out' mouths around the canvas as points of emphasis within the composition. 'It helped me immensely to have this real thing", he later said. (Interview with David Sylvester, "Content Is a Glimpse" Location, New York, 1963, p. 47.)
Despite the addition of a human eye in this work, (in a position and function not dissimilar to that in Pink Angels), Sail Cloth remains, unlike the earlier painting, wholly abstract and unintelligible as a figurative painting. Other elements from Pink Angels, such as the wheel/sun motif also seem to have been approximated in the top right hand corner of the painting, but here everything is kept deliberately vague and enigmatic. Form conflicts with form and yet also, through de Kooning's smooth sweeping brushwork, blends into one another in a strange dynamic play of rhythm, line and energy. Features of the real world appear and disappear amidst this play like remnants of another world. The flotsam of life they sparkle as points of intensity within the composition and conjure allusions and suggestions within the forms of the painting that ultimately cannot be maintained.
This ambiguous and almost otherworldly flow of form is emphasised by the clarity of the window-like motif that appears in the top right of the painting. It is a compositional feature that appears in several of de Kooning's works of this period (from Pink Lady through works like Boudoir and Zot to the Women series) and one that metaphorically seems to set up the possibility of alternate space or an alternate reality existing beyond the picture. Its appearance in de Kooning's pictures seems to be an acknowledgment by the artist of the 'glimpses' of alternate reality his pictures provide as well as a clear indication of the enjoyment that de Kooning took in the world of his paintings, reveling in the paradoxes that they create. Sail Cloth is one of the finest expressions of this tendency in his art, packed as it is with implications of meaning all structured by his exquisite spidery line a meandering but energised line that miraculously seems to hold this myriad of suggestive form into a intense and potentially explosive web of unified form. "I'm not interested in 'abstracting' or taking things out or reducing painting," he said, "I paint this way because I can keep putting more and more things in it - drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideals about space." (De Kooning, "Six Abstractionists Defend Their Art," New York Times Magazine, 21 January 1951.)
Oil, enamel, charcoal and graphite on board
PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT AMERICAN COLLECTION BEING SOLD BY THE JCF
Signed 'de Kooning' (lower right)
Willem de Kooning
The Arts Club of Chicago, Ben Shahn, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, October 1951, no. 21.
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, The New York School: Four Decades, Guggenheim Museum Collection and Major Loans, July-August 1982.
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Berlin, Akademie der Künste and Paris, Centres Georges Pompidou, Willem de Kooning Retrospective Exhibition, December 1983-September 1984, cat. no. 176 (illustrated).
The Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, Individuals: A Selected History of Contemporary Art, 1945-1986, December 1986-January 1988.
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; London, Tate Gallery and Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Willem de Kooning: Paintings, May 1994-May 1995, no. 16 (illustrated).
22½ x 29 in. (56.2 x 73.6 cm.)
T. Hess, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1959, pl. 104 (illustrated). S. Yard, Willem de Kooning: The First Twenty-Six Years in New York, New York and London, 1985, no. 218 (illustrated).
D. Waldman, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1988, p. 73, no. 54 (illustrated)
M. Stevens and A. Swan, De Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2004, p. 285.
Egan Gallery, New York
Mr. and Mrs. M.H. Grossman, New York
Mr. and Mrs. Max Monarch, Altoona
Allan Stone Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner