Between the years of 1953 and 1955, Willem de Kooning created sixteen paintings, along with a number of drawings of Women. These became his most famous images, establishing his position as a preeminent painter. The choice of the Woman image surprised the critics but was, in de Kooning's view, a logical conclusion to the researches he had been pursuing. As he told David Sylvester in 1963,
"The Women had to do with the female painted through all the ages, all those idols, and maybe I was stuck to a certain extent; I couldn't go on...It did one thing for me: it eliminated composition, arrangement, relationship, light--all this silly talk about line, color and form--because that was the thing I wanted to get hold of" (D. Sylvester, 1963, p. 46).
De Kooning's pictures returned him to figurative investigations precisely at the moment when abstraction was becoming popular. It allowed him to demonstrate his interest in the figure and in the sexuality of women and, by the way in which he painted, it pursued the expressive brushstroke that he had experimented with in the recent landscape pictures. The paintings are relatively modest in size, and his strokes and gestures are proportionate to the subject. They become dramatic and more forceful as he moves through the series of small paintings nad studies.
The present work is related to the painting Woman V, 1952-1953, where the image is absorbed into what Thomas Hess characterized as de Kooning's insistent "ambiguity," shown by the relative lack of distinction between the subject and background. In the present work, the forms are studied in isolation and the components of the figure shown unadorned. De Kooning's inventiveness in representing the woman's breasts is more marked here than in the painting. Paul Cummings wrote of these works,
"Most all the women drawings are filled with lines which seem to suggest fleeing images caught briefly by the artist's eye during the process of making the drawing. Are they imagined or dream images? Captured on the page, they suggest an automatic motor response to unknown stimulis. These furtive lines emphasize the drawing process. The image is tested, and the figure is set into the composition, by the activity of these lines. De Kooning is an artist who rides his imagination, pushing it to increase his experience" (P. Cummings, "The Drawings of de Kooning," Willem de Kooning, New York, 1983, p. 18).
In his Woman series, de Kooning revived the tradition of the female nude in painting, redirecting it in remarkably radical ways. The identities that these figures have conjured range from ancient sources to contemporary life: they have conjured images of the excessive corporeality of Venus of Willendorf as well as the iconic beauty of Marilyn Monroe. At the same time, the artist's representations bridged multiple divides, in both style and subject matter, often combining painting and collage, high art and popular culture, at a time when the reigning modernist critics insisted on the autonomy and purity of the paint medium.
Harold Rosenberg asserted the significance of de Kooning's marvelous manipulations of the female form: "From 1940 to the present, Woman has manifested herself in de Kooning's paintings and drawings as at once the focus of desire, frustration, inner conflict, pleasure, disdain, humor, and irony, and as posing problems of conception and handling as demanding as those of an engineer" (H. Rosenberg, De Kooning, New York, 1973, p. 29). The forceful fragmentation and vehement facture in this images, the very qualities from which they derived their evocative potential, have also provoked questions about the artist's attitudes toward women and even elicited accusations of misogyny. As Elaine de Kooning, the artist's wife and a fellow expressionist painter, has asserted, the violence lies not in the paintings' essential content but in the artist's radical style: "They [the Woman paintings] do have a certain ferocity, but that has to do with paint" (Quoted in R. Shiff, "'Water and Lipstick' De Kooning in Transition," Willem de Kooning Paintings, exh. cat., Washington D. C. and New Haven, 1994, p. 49).
(fig. 1) Stages of Woman I, 1950-1952. Photograph by Rudolph Burckhardt.
(fig. 2) Woman and Bicycle, 1952-1953, Whitney Museum of American Art.
Woman (Blue Eyes)
Oil, enamel, and charcoal on two sheets of paper laid down on canvas
Signed 'de Kooning' (lower right)
Willem de Kooning
Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Intimate Gestures, Realized Visions: Masterworks on Paper from the Collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, December 1987-January 1988.
Newport, Newport Harbor Art Museum; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and San Antonio, McNay Art Museum, The Figurative Fifties: New York Figurative Expressionism, July 1988-April 1989, p. 85, no. 24 (illustrated in color).
Miami, Center for the Fine Arts, Dream Collection: The Human Figure: Selections from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Collection of Norman and Irma Braman, May-October 1996.
Southampton, Parrish Art Museum, Dark Images, Bright Prospects: the Survival of the Figure After World War II, February-March 1997, p. 8 (illustrated).
28 x 20 in. (71.1 x 50.8 cm.)
Martha Jackson Gallery, Recent Oils by Willem de Kooning, New York, 1955, no. 13.
Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, Albright-Knox Art Gallery Annual Report, 1985-1986, pp. 65-66 (illustrated).
Martha Jackson Gallery, New York.
Seymour H. Knox, Buffalo.
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, gift from the above, 1986.
Property from the Collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, sale; Christie's, New York, 18 November 1997, lot 146.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.