Willem de Kooning's paintings of women are among the most enduring and famous images of Twentieth Century art. They combine a timeless subject with a revolutionary and spectacular method of painting. In the 1949 painting, Two Standing Women, we witness de Kooning combining the abstract painting of the 1940s landscapes with the figure which haunted him all his life, the woman. Although he had painted portraits a decade earlier, here the figures are rendered in the same way as their setting, a complete union between the two.
Well established as an accomplished abstract painter, de Kooning shocked the art world and his fellow artists when he introduced the figure into his painting at the end of the 1940s. The struggle not to use it finally became a pointless adherence to the ruling precepts for painting at the time. In a conversation with David Sylvester in 1963, de Kooning remarked:
It's really absurd to make an image, like a human image, with paint today, when you think about it, since we have this problem of doing or not doing it. But then all of a sudden it was even more absurd not to do it. So I fear that I have to follow my desires...and the figure did one thing for me; it eliminated composition, arrangement, relationships, light--all this silly talk about line, color, and form you know--because that was the thing I wanted to get hold of. (D. Sylvester, "Content is a Glimpse...," Location 1, Spring 1963, pp. 45-53).
Like his fellow artists of the time, de Kooning was influenced by both cubist considerations of composition and space and the surrealist spontaniety of gesture, but he was alone in returning to the figure. The composition of two figures standing side by side has its roots in the 1938 painting, Two Men Standing (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) (figure 1), an important painting showing two standing clothed figures, one of whom is dressed ambiguously in men's or women's clothing. The psychological complexity of this work continues in the Women paintings which are equally demanding despite their apparently simple yet complex subject matter.
Two Standing Women, 1949, combines the dominant sexuality of the woman subject (a combination, in his words, of desire and irritation easily linked to his wife and mother) and the calligraphic, automatic forms that he released in the landscapes. To spontaneity and passion is added an interest in the vernacular, specifically that found in American advertising and celebrity imagery. 'In its restlessness, claustrophobia, density, rawness, violence and ambiguity, de Kooning's paintings of the 1940s and 1950s felt like a walk down a Manhattan street' (I. Sandler, "Abstract Expressionism: The Noise of Traffic on the Way to Walden Pond," C. M. Joachimedes & N. Rosenthal, American Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture 1913-1993, Munich 1993, p. 83).
The painting is almost untamed in its depiction of two sexy women standing side by side in a brightly colored landscape of red, orange, yellow and blue. Although both figures fill the composition, the woman on the right, with her shocking blonde hair, full and voluptuous breasts and arms raised behind her head in a provocative pose, seems to overpower the picture plane. Painted with bold brushstrokes in black enamel, she stands slightly higher than her counterpart, who appears to recess in the background due to her smaller and slightly less defined composition.
Two Standing Women immediataly preceded the larger 1950-1952 painting, Woman I (The Museum of Modern Art, New York) which is depicted in photographs of the time as starting out in the format of two women standing side by side (figure 2). In the 1950s, de Kooning pursued this two-figure motif in a series of pastel and pen and ink drawings, and in only two large works in oil, most notably Two Women in the Country, 1954 (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden). This format culminated in the 1960s with two additional smaller paintings, Clam Diggers, 1964 (Private Collection, United States) (figure 3), and Two Figures in a Landscape, 1967 (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam). Although the renderings changed, the essence of the subjects remained with him throughout his figurative years, with its graphic simplicity, even brutality, and liquid, quickly worked paint in varied mediums of oil, enamel and charcoal.
Along with his peers, the late 1940s were crucial in de Kooning's development. By the end of the decade he had established his own notions about abstracton and paint application, relentlessly investigating new ways of working. By the end of the decade he was creating a sensation, not only with his abstract work but his revolutionary Women as well. His first one-man show in New York at the Charles Egan Gallery in 1948 established de Kooning as a formidable artist and launched the career of an acknowledged master of Twentieth Century Art.
Figure 1: Clam Diggers (1964)
(Private Collection, United States)
( c 1997 Willem de Kooning Revocable Trust/Artists Rights Society, New York)
Figure 2: Two Men Standing, (circa 1938)
(The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
( c 1997 Willem de Kooning Revocable Trust/Artists Rights Society, New York)
Figure 3: View of de Kooning working on preliminary study of Woman I (1950-1952) (The Museum of Modern Art, New York)
Figure 4: View of de Kooning in his studio with Two Standing Women (1949) on right
Two Standing Women
Oil, enamel and charcoal on composition board
Notice to Prospective Buyers: Please note that payment to Christie's will be due on January 2, 1998.
In addition, this lot is exempt from New York and Michigan sales tax.
Signed 'de Kooning' lower right--signed again 'de Kooning' on the reverse
Willem de Kooning
Richmond, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Paintings and Sculpture Collected by Mr. and Mrs. Larry Aldrich, January-March 1959, no. 9 (illustrated).
Philbrook, Oklahoma, Philbrook Art Center; Dallas Museum of Fine Arts; Los Angeles, Municipal Gallery; San Francisco Museum of Art; Seattle Art Museum; The Arts Club of Chicago; The Baltimore Museum of Art; Albany Institute of History and Art; Allentown Art Museum; Tuscon, The Art Center, and City Art Museum of St. Louis, The Aldrich Collection, an exhibition sponsored by the American Federation of the Arts, October 1960-April 1962, no. 8 (illustrated).
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, New York School, June-August 1965, p. 73, no. 15 (illustrated).
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; London, Tate Gallery; New York, The Museum of Modern Art; Art Institute of Chicago, and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Willem de Kooning, September 1968-September 1969, p. 84, no. 52 (illustrated).
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Berlin, Akademie der Künste, and Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Willem de Kooning: Retrospective, December 1983-September 1984, p. 169, no. 174 (illustrated).
30 x 27in. (76.2 x 68.6cm.)
T. Hess, Willem de Kooning, New York 1959, no. 109 (illustrated).
S. Tillim, "The Figure and The Figurative in Abstract Expressionism," Art Forum, September 1965, p. 47 (illustrated).
J. Butler, "The American Way with Art," Connoisseur, February 1968, vol. 167, p. 133, no. 4 (illustrated).
S. Yard, Willem de Kooning The First Twenty-Six Years, New York 1983, no. 254 (illustrated).
H. Rosenburg, Willem de Kooning, New York 1973, no. 59 (illustrated).
W. Seitz, Abstract Expressionist Painting in America, Cambridge, Mass. 1983, no. 83 (illustrated).
D. Waldman, Willem de Kooning, New York 1988, p. 79.
D. Sylvester, R. Schiff and M. Prather, Willem de Kooning Paintings, Washington D.C. 1994, p. 127 (illustrated on p. 92).
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York.
Mr. Larry Aldrich, New York.
Norton Simon Foundation, Los Angeles; sale, Parke-Bernet Galleries Inc., New York, May 14, 1970, lot 19 (illustrated).