The brief, but dramatic, sojourn that Willem de Kooning made into the world of sculpture during the first half of the 1970s produced some of the most intensely expressive works of his career. Along with Picasso and Degas, de Kooning was one of the very few painters who successfully made the transition from canvas to plinth, and the vivid and energetic brushstrokes which had defined his work up to this point were perfectly suited to the transformation into the tactility of the sculptural form. Like his iconic painterly human forms, the facial features that emerge from the surface of the work are packed with the marks of their creation: the heavily worked surface evinces the artist's physical and conceptual tussles with his new medium, as he took full advantage of the astonishing aesthetic possibilities that sculpture offered him.
De Kooning constructs the majestic proportions of Large Torso's quasi-human features by building up the body with layers of clay piled high and heaped on top of each other until recognizable forms begin to emerge. He preferred using extremely wet clay, as he found it had a similar consistency to that of oil paint; this pliability allowed de Kooning to have total control over the medium resulting in the creation of great swathes and fissures in the surface of the clay as he manipulated it into the desired shape. The sculpture's highly modeled surface retains the presence of de Kooning's own hand, with deep impressions in the areas where he dug in his fingers, pinching the clay for emphasis, clearly visible in the surface as he actively willed the sculpture to come into being. The long arms and large, heavy hands convey a primordial sense of the origins of mankind-a figure dragging itself up from the earth from which it was formed like some kind of pre-historic swamp-creature. The figure has a palpable, seemingly degraded bodily presence, with its knotty muscles, distorted pose, and grotesque visage. And yet, these very human qualities claim their own space as surely as their power compels the viewer's attention.
&R These expressive features recall the energy and vitality of de Kooning's painterly brushstrokes. He valued both sculpture's plasticity and the possibilities that they gave him for being absorbed in the process of creation, allowing more time to perfect his compositions without losing the sense of energy that was inherent in his work: "In some ways, clay is even better than oil. You can work on a painting but you can't start over again with the canvas like it was before you put the first stroke down. And sometimes, in the end, it's no good, no matter what you do. But with clay, I cover it with a wet cloth and come back to it the next morning and if I don't like what I did, or changed my mind, I can break it down and start over. It's always fresh" (W. de Kooning, quoted in J. Elderfield (ed.), de Kooning: A Retrospective, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011, p. 411).
De Kooning began making sculpture in the summer of 1969 during a holiday in Rome. There, he ran into an old friend, Herzl Emmanuel, who owned a bronze casting foundry. At his friend's invitation, de Kooning began to work in clay, and liking the process so much, he produced thirteen small sculptures that he had cast. These works were shipped to the artist's gallery in New York, where they were seen by Henry Moore, whose own exhibition at the Knoedler Gallery had brought him to New York. The older artist's enthusiastic approval paved the way for de Kooning's further investigation into this medium. The human figure that had recurred throughout his oeuvre in painting was a natural subject to pursue in sculpture; it also enabled a dialogue with a historical lineage of figural sculpture that continued into the 20th century with Auguste Rodin and Alberto Giocometti. Pursuing the figural motif via direct modeling in clay was highly unusual in the 1970s when Minimalism had given way to three-dimensional geometric objects whose industrial surfaces were pre-fabricated according to artists' specifications. In contrast, the expressive, alternately concave and convex surfaces, the exaggerated modeling, and the mannered gestures manifest in these works register de Kooning's direct sculptural processes.
De Kooning made figurative sculpture pertinent to contemporary times. He initially intended his sculpture to be a way of enhancing his painting practice, but also found that his painting helped him produce dramatically original figurative sculpture, as his studio assistant at the time, David Christian, recalls: "From the outset he approached the sculpture medium with a totally original outlook, and from the get-go he had little consideration for how either clay or even the sculptural medium has been approached historically: that is, either technically, or in terms of the final product. He was always totally focused on the work at hand and the completion of an individual work barely entered his thinking at all. Once he started sculpting, painting, or drawing, finishing was the last thing on his mind and everything was a string to the next bead" (D. Christian, Ibid., p. 411). For the short period in the 1970s when sculpture became his prime source of artistic output, de Kooning produced some of his most dramatic and striking work. While the power and force of his earlier painterly figures have been transformed into three dimensions, works such as Large Torso are not simply reproductions of earlier forms. The physicality of the medium allowed de Kooning to fully realize the expressive nature of his artistic prowess--with unparalleled results.