"In 1945 de Kooning reveals a signature impossible to mistake," Harold Rosenberg wrote about the emerging synthesis between abstraction and figuration that took place in de Kooning's art around the end of the Second World War. This was the period when, in a brief sequence of paintings that at first glance seemed to mark a radical departure from all that had gone before, de Kooning laid the foundations of the new pictorial language that would distinguish his art for the rest of his career.
Hovering between the figurative and the abstract, De Koonings style was emphasized by the surface of his paintings and the sweeping physical act of creating interlocking progressions of slick semi-amorphous shapes. These shapes, Rosenberg described as being "suggestive but undefined forms flicked by his inspired drawing (to) form impressions of the human figure, streets and interiors, from flashes of memory of Old Masters, and from spontaneous motions of the hand" (H. Rosenberg, De Kooning, New York, 1973).
Study for Marshes is one of de Kooning's small number of extraordinary paintings made between 1945 and 1946, which, along with other such works as Labyrinth, Judgement Day, Fire Island and the seminal Pink Angels, marks the first clear emergence in the artist's work of his own unique style and his radical 'breakthrough' to a new and intuitive way of making images.
Pink Angels forms the cornerstone of these works and was seemingly kept on display throughout much of 1945 and 1946 in de Kooning's studio to inspire and inform the creation of other paintings. These too, like Pink Angels were the product of a painstaking process of correction and re-correction using layered images and fragments drawn from numerous drawings that de Kooning made alongside the process of painting to assist in his discovery of vital marks and forms. Marking a new looseness encouraged by his recent adoption of a long liner's brush used in sign painting, the fluid, spontaneous and immediate execution in these works belies in the long hours of contemplation, correction and build-up of form.
Painted in layers of swift, choreographed gestures, these extraordinary paintings represent the culmination and triumphant resolution of a number of disparate influences on de Kooning's work at this time. Here the anthropomorphism of both Picasso and Gorky is subsumed by de Kooning's swift and fluid line into a cohesive and continually moving flux of form that flows across the surface of the work hinting at representation without ever defining it. Inspired by the amorphous shapes of Surrealist artists such as Miro and Matta, it is now the action of making the mark and the mark itself that have grown to paramount importance for de Kooning. As a result a new compressed but also open-ended space is attained wherein foreground and background, subject, object and void, all merge, vie with and become interdependent upon one another right on the plain of the picture's surface.
Compacted like a collage and full of the swiftness and pace of the big city de Kooning's semi-automatic and almost gestural manner of painting gives a fragmented 'glimpse' of its subject as if seen momentarily, while crossing the street, from a passing car or in a fleeting memory. As each form appears to be only a partial shape - a momentary form that might change or mutate at any moment - the collage-like build up of these truncated or fragmented forms seem to grow like the accumulation of torn posters on the street or grafitti on a wall into a homogenized and organic surface that is almost alive.
De Kooning, according to those who knew him, was certainly someone who took good notice of the world around him, often pointing out the minutiae of life on the streets and drawing attention to the many beautiful forms and shapes to be found there amongst the graffiti and flotsam and jetsam of the downtown landscape. Something of the condensed flood of imagery of urban life as well as of the constructive logic of Cubism undoubtedly informs the structuring of these pictures, but it is primarily through the magnificent lyricism of de Kooning's brushwork that they are held together into their magnificent and ambiguous unity.
The overt lyricism of de Kooning's brushwork, its sense of choreography, rhythm and balance, as well as the dissolution of space and foreground and background in these works all reflect current issues in contemporary dance - a subject on which de Kooning was, surprisingly, well informed. As his close friend and fellow artist Milton Resnik recalled, 'Bill was not a very cultured guy, but he liked the ballet' and, in the late 1930s through his friends Edwin Denby and Rudolph Burckhardt, and later through his wife Elaine, he had become well acquainted with the world of contemporary dance (M. Resnik cited in M. Stevens and A. Swan, De Kooning: An American Master, New York 2005, p. 145). Denby and Burckhardt, a poet and dance critic who were among the first supporters and collectors of de Kooning's work, shared an interest in a wide range of artistic worlds most particularly the avant-garde experiments in modern dance and experimental music then being practiced in New York by Aaron Copeland, Merce Cunningham, John Cage. Through them in the mid-1940s, de Kooning and his wife Elaine became immersed in this circle and while de Kooning never really grew to appreciate the music of Cage, he was very responsive to this group's notion of an integrated art work and with the figure-based abstraction of modern dance. Indeed, as an article on Nijinsky who de Kooning greatly admired, written by Edwin Denby, reveals, de Kooning clearly saw close parallels between the gestural 'twist and slap' of the paintbrush and the articulation of form made by dancers like Nijinsky with the body through dance. Studying photographs of Nijinsky that Denby owned, de Kooning became fascinated by his ability to express a classical 'line' with his body and to articulate the so-called 'negative' space that exists between two bodies. With Nijinsky, Denby wrote, quoting de Kooning, 'the space between the figures becomes a firm body of air, a lucid statement of relationship in the way intervening space does in the modern academy of Cizanne, Seurat and Picasso' (E. Denby 'Notes on Nijinsky Photographs' cited in M. Stevens and A. Swan, op cit, p. 187).
Expressing similar ideas of a holistic integration of form and space, the paintings that de Kooning made between 1945 and 1946 also deny the traditional division between figure and void, foreground and background, by allowing the shape and flow of one form to flood into and actually inform the shape of another next to it. As if to assert this similarity between the articulated flow of semi-abstract form across the surfaces of his canvas and the movement of the dance, de Kooning's painting Judgement Day was actually used as the basis for 1946 painting Labyrinth which was made as the backdrop for an avant-garde dance choreographed by Marie Marchowsky.
For de Kooning, the human figure - the gestural expressions and articulations of the body - lay at he root of all abstraction. 'Even abstract shapes have a likeness' he famously said, and whatever forms his lyrical line and sweeping brush made would inevitably, he felt, reflect the scale and motoric action of his body. In this respect none of his works could ever be wholly abstract but, accepting this, what interested de Kooning at this stage in his career was to be able to blur the lines and to push the limits between figuration and abstraction to breaking point.
Because of its vaguely figurative pink elements punctuating a strange fluid landscape of green, Study for Marshes was originally thought to be a study for Pink Angels - a work which shares a similar sense of flat collage-like shapes articulating a playful dance of form within the strange infinite space of the surface of the picture. It is this space, - a strange new space held and defined on the picture surface by the new process of painting that de Kooning has discovered in these works - that is their real subject and which was to become an ongoing source of fascination for the artist. Operating within it like a dancer, it is a space that de Kooning recognized was essentially always full. 'I am always in the picture somewhere' he said, 'the amount of space I use, I am always in, I seem to move around in it'. Ultimately, it is a space that would never be really defined or fully expressed until his great masterpiece Excavation of 1950 - a work whose surface is almost crushed by the weight of suggestive imagery filling its surface. Here, Study for Marshes, with its emphasis on the overt lyricism of de Kooning's sweeping brushstrokes defining an open interplay of form on the surface, de Kooning articulates a far less anxious and more luxuriant enjoyment of open-air space with the sensual feeling of an artist who his reveling in the fluid feel and gestural activity of his work. 'Subject matter in the abstract is space,' he said, 'the idea of space is given to the artist to change if he can (Ibid, p. 280).