Uniting virtuosic painterly technique with a powerfully inventive drive, Willem de Kooning was one of the most significant and influential painters of his generation. In David Sylvester’s words, “de Kooning sits there in the middle of the map of this century’s art like a great railway junction: lines arriving from various points above converge there; lines depart from there to spread out in various directions below” (D. Sylvester, quoted in Willem de Kooning Paintings, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., 1994, p. 25.) Woman in Landscape II, painted in the year of the artist’s first major retrospective at MoMA in New York, demonstrates the artist’s absolute mastery of his medium. Revealing his intimacy with the art of the past, de Kooning’s skillful gestures transition effortlessly from flowing ribbons to brisk lashes, fleeting drips to haunting palimpsests. Color sings from the painting’s surface in shots of intensity while also seducing us with its subtlety. Above all, this painting seeks to provoke a direct visual response to the paint itself, in all its vivacity and eloquence. In de Kooning’s hands, each brush stroke is given a vibrant life of its own.
It is highly characteristic that any figurative element to Woman in Landscape II has been adeptly complicated by the extreme abstracting of form and endless rephrasing of passages of painting. In some places, the image has been scraped away so that only a ghostly trace of the artist’s thinking has remained. Yet Woman in Landscape II belongs to a body of paintings that, however far the motif has been reworked and reconfigured, are drawn from de Kooning’s experience of nature and his love of the landscape of East Hampton on Long Island. De Kooning moved to a house and studio in the area in 1963, and the calm atmosphere and quality of light of the place seeped inexorably into his work. Even a habitual bike ride could inspire a new painting: “Now I go on my bicycle down to the beach,” he once said, “and search for a new image in the landscape. And I love puddles. When I see a puddle, I stare into it. Later I don’t paint a puddle, but the image calls up within me. All the images inside of me are from nature anyway” (W. de Kooning, ibid., p. 176).
Water was a particular stimulus for de Kooning, who had spent his childhood in Rotterdam before he stowed away on a ship to New York. The light and the lie of the land around his new coastal house was reminiscent of his home country. “I was always very much interested in water,” he once said, “being in Holland near all that water” (Ibid.) The mutable, reflective qualities of water are mirrored in every layer of Woman in Landscape II, which appears to flicker with fluid movement and is not anchored by any recognizable figure or feature. Explaining his love for this kind of disorientating ambiguity, the artist once explained that in his paintings he attempted to “free myself from the notion of top and bottom, left and right, from realism!,” adding that he believed “everything should float” (Ibid.). In his continual endeavours to depict nature, de Kooning’s work became more immersive and more experiential; his abstract vistas are infused with a breezy calm that evokes the experience of being within an enticing, sunlit landscape.
De Kooning’s palette in particular adjusted to the countryside. White, pink, yellow and green became dominant, often energized with a shot of bright blue or, as in this work, a streak of red. It was the feeling of the light that he wanted to capture. Instead of earth tones that imitated the colors he saw, he favoured his own inventions, which he called “indescribable tones.” As he told Harold Rosenberg, “I started working with them and insisted that they would give me the kind of light I wanted. One was lighting up the grass. That became that kind of green. One was lighting up the water. That became grey… I got into painting in the atmosphere I wanted to be in. It was like the reflection of light. I reflected upon the reflections on the water, like the fishermen do” (W. de Kooning, quoted in H. Rosenberg, “Interview with Willem de Kooning,” Artnews 71, No. 5, September 1972, p. 57).
The liberation that de Kooning felt in East Hampton, away from his growing celebrity in New York, became immediately evident to those who saw his new work. As his interest in the countryside deepened, the complexity and richness of his images grew. Favored pictorial themes of women and landscapes remained, but became more sensual and increasingly abstract. Reviewing a show of de Kooning’s recent paintings at Knoedler Gallery in 1969 for Artnews, one critic found his latest pictures to be “sunny and slightly flippant. De Kooning’s universal woman, one part daydream, one part nightmare, has been gracefully transmogrified into an image of desire and fear… Beneath the sugar-coated, tomboy, groupie, unisex look of de Kooning’s jazzing new lovelies, lurks the same old universal temptress, perhaps more dangerous than ever because her surface has become so likable, so sweet… If [de Kooning] were 25 instead of 65, unknown instead of celebrated, he could easily be heralded as a new boy wonder” (J. Perreault, quoted in de Kooning: A Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, 2011, p. 348).
As de Kooning entered into old age he retained a sense of the dynamic energy of the city while becoming closely attuned to the nuances of emotion that the rural landscape can provoke. In these later works, the skilful dissolution of the traditional boundaries between foreground and background, urban and rural, figure and landscape recognizes the all-encompassing reality of the act of looking. With its delicate harmonies and internal momentum, Woman in Landscape II pays homage to this and also to nature, not as a picturesque backdrop for humankind, but as a creative and powerful life force.