Willem de Kooning's Woman (Seated Woman I) (1952) is a magnificent drawing that was conceived on the heels of the artist's labored masterpiece, Woman I (1950-52) and bears vestiges of this painting's most salient features. Created as one of only sixteen drawings for inclusion in the "Willem de Kooning: Painting on the Theme of Woman" show at the Sidney Janis Gallery in March 1953, it is fleshed out to a degree of finish and level of confidence that that renders it par with his paintings from this period. Acquired from this historic show, Woman (Seated Woman I) is an Abstract Expressionist gem that debuts at auction after over half a century in private hands.
In June 1952, de Kooning declared Woman I finished after two years of relentless toil. It was a triumph that left him exhausted. Seeking respite from the demands of the city and from painting, the artist accepted an invitation to summer at the home of Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend in East Hampton, Long Island. As he was preparing for his much anticipated second solo show at Janis, he did not abandon work altogether, and remained obsessed with the theme of the Woman. Setting up a makeshift studio on Castelli's screened porch, de Kooning produced some of the most lush, assured, exquisite, powerful and challenging works on paper of his career during those weeks. The results were more than mere cursory sketches; compared to the numerous drawings that he made as an integral development of his paintings, these works were clearly intended for public presentation.
A gloriously rich pastel, graphite and charcoal execution, Woman (Seated Woman I) is a brilliant product of de Kooning's bucolic retreat; displayed in the first room at the Janis show, it offered a process-oriented introduction to the six Woman paintings that followed in the adjacent space. The fraught drama of creation, destruction and resuscitation that spread viscerally across the paintings played out with no less urgency across the intimate scale of this remarkable drawing.
De Kooning's infamous struggle with Woman derived not from his desire to resolve the painting--his years of training assured him of the knowledge of what resolution would look like--but to leave it unresolved. He fought for an intimacy with Woman that would excavate her fundamental ambiguity: mother and monster, lover and harpy, Madonna and whore, de Kooning channeled the spectrum of female archetypes to create a modern archetype that was arguably closer to the truth. Stating: "The Woman had to do with the female painted through all the ages," he parlayed female idols from archaic sculpture and African tribal art, conversed with the Western tradition of the female nude and infiltrated such "high" art sources with magazine cutouts and pin-ups gleaned from popular culture. The results were as notorious for their figural conception as for their unprecedented and shockingly violent sensuality rendered through their turbulent and wildly distorted configurations.
Of the sixteen works on paper at the Janis exhibition, only four informed or related to Woman I and Woman (Seated Woman I) was easily the most finished and the most complex of this subset. Paul Schimmel states, "Not unlike the figure in Woman I, the figure here is a seated woman, visible frontally but fractured in a pinwheel-like landscape. She is rendered in cubo-futurist fashion as if she was rotating, amplified by disk-like forms behind her head that that are similarly distorted in circular twists. The palette of orange, green, yellow, red, ochre, and brown further amplifies the drawing's kaleidoscopic effect, which differs from the more settled monumentality of Woman I. Nevertheless, in certain details, such as the way in which the hands touch, the shape of the eyes and the orientation of the left and right leg, the parallels to the painting become apparent." (cited in Tracing the Figure, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, p. 146).
Indeed, the present work evinces many of the prominent characteristics of Women I. Centrally positioned, the female figure fully occupies her space. Comprised of linear elements and chromatic patches that double as rounded volumetric forms, she reveals the tense interplay between figuration and abstraction inherent in all of de Kooning's work. At once cohering but also falling apart into constituent flat geometric shapes, the subject shatters into intersecting planes that pierce both figure and ground. Just as spatial relations are confused, solid and void are also called into question: the figure vaporizes while retaining complete command of the viewer's attention. Emerging tentatively as if plagued by some overwhelming existential anxiety, she embodies her struggled genesis and that of her painterly sister in Women I. She is hardly the Venus of Botticelli's masterpiece, stepping gracefully out of her clamshell; here, hovering on the cusp of chaos, agitated scratches and chromatic shards, she barely survives the tortured travails of artistic creation. Indeed, she serves as a metaphor for its labored process. But she prevails, smiling demurely over her creator and viewer. And with her, de Kooning enters the ranks for posterity.
Woman (Seated Woman I)
Charcoal, oil and graphite on paper
Please note that this lot is incorrectly indicated with a guarantee symbol in the catalogue.
PROPERTY OF A NEW ENGLAND COLLECTOR
Signed 'de Kooning' (lower right)
Willem de Kooning
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, Willem de Kooning: Paintings on the Theme of the Woman, March-April 1953, no. 17.
New York, Allan Stone Gallery, de Kooning's Woman, February 1964, n.p. (illustrated).
New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, American Drawings, September-October 1964, no. 56 (illustrated).
Minneapolis, The Walker Art Center; Ottawa, The National Gallery of Canada; Washington, D.C., The Phillips Collection; Buffalo, The Albright-Knox Gallery; Houston, The Museum of Fine Arts and St. Louis, Washington University Gallery of Art, de Kooning: drawings/sculptures, March 1974-April 1975, no. 71.
New York, East Hampton, Guild Hall Museum, Willem de Kooning: Works from 1951-1981, May-July 1981, no. 43.
New York, The Whitney Museum of American Art; Paris, Museé National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou and Berlin, Akademie der Künste, Willem de Kooning Retrospektive, December 1983-September 1984, p. 61, no. 56 (illustrated in color).
New York, Pace Gallery, de Kooning and Dubuffet: The Women, November 1990-January 1991, n.p., pl. 17 (illustrated in color).
New York, Barbara Mathes Gallery, de Kooning: Works on Paper, October-December 1993.
New York, C&M Arts, Willem de Kooning, 1995, no. 17 (illustrated in color).
Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art; The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Washington, D.C., The National Gallery, Willem de Kooning: Tracing the Figure, February 2002-January 2003, pl. 60 (illustrated in color).
Waltham, Mass., Brandeis University, Rose Art Museum, 1994 (extended loan).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
image: 11 1/8 x 7 5/8 in. (28.3 x 19.5 cm.); sheet: 14½ x 11½ in. (36.8 x 29.3 cm.)
T. Hess, de Kooning: Drawings, New York, 1959, p. 150, fig. 57 (illustrated in color).
P. Schjeldahl, "Willem de Kooning," The Village Voice, January 1991, p. 79 (illustrated).
Gallery Guide, November 1993 (illustrated in color on the cover).
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1953