Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
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Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)


Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
incised with signature 'de Kooning' and stamped with number 'AP' (on the right foot); incised with date and initials '1972 D.C' (lower center)
59 1/2 x 29 5/8 x 23 3/4 in. (151.1 x 75.2 x 60.3 cm.)
Executed in 1972. This work is artist's proof number one from an edition of seven plus three artist's proofs.
Collection of the Artist
By descent from the above to the present owner
R. Hughes, “Slap and Twist,” Time, 23 October 1972, p. 71 (another example illustrated).
H. Kramer, "Art: The Sculptures of Willem de Kooning,” The New York Times, 13 October 1972, p. 32 (another example illustrated).
H. Rosenberg, “Interview with de Kooning,” ARTnews, September 1972, p. 58 (another example illustrated).
“Sculptures: Recent Works by Wilhelm de Kooning,” Arts Magazine, November 1972, p. 62 (another example illustrated).
B. O’Doherty, America Masters: The Voice and the Myth, New York, 1973, p. 135 (another example illustrated).
H. Rosenberg, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1973, pl. 195 (another example illustrated).
P. Schjeldahl, “de Kooning’s Sculptures: Amplified Touch,” Art in America, March-April 1974, p. 63 (another example illustrated in color).
D. Ashton, "Willem de Kooning: Homo Faber," Arts Magazine, January 1976, p. 61 (another example illustrated).
Willem de Kooning : sculptures, lithographies, peintures, exh. cat., Geneva, Muse´e d'art et d'histoire, 1977, p. 5, no. 15 (another example illustrated).
R. Hughes, “Landscapes and the Bodies of Women,” Horizon, February 1978, p. 18 (another example illustrated).
Seven on the figure : Jack Beal, William Beckman, Joan Brown, John Deandrea, Willem de Kooning, Stephen Destaebler, Ben Kamihira, exh. cat., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1979, pp. 47 and 50 (another example illustrated).
H. Harrison, “de Kooning: 30 Years on the East End,” The New York Times, 24 May 1981, p. 13 (another example illustrated).
J. Carlson, “Architectural Digest Visits Willem de Kooning,” Architectural Digest, January 1982, pp. 63-64 (illustrated in color).
A. Wallach, “At 79, de Kooning Seeks Simplicity,” Newsday, 4 December 1983, p. 4 (another example illustrated).
H. Gaugh, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1983, p. 94, no. 83 (another example illustrated).
Bulletin of the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1983-84, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1984, pp. 10 and 14 (another example illustrated).
P. Daix, “Defoulement en Couleur,” Le Quotidien de Paris, 28 June 1984 (another example illustrated).
J. M. Joosten, 20 jaar verzamelen: Aanwinsten Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam 1963-1984, Amsterdam, 1984, p. 231, no. 439 (another example illustrated).
P. Schneider, “De Kooning: L’homme de tous le Refus,” L’express, 27 July 1984 (another example illustrated).
R. Smith, “de Kooning: The Light Fantastic,” Village Voice, 10 January 1984, p. 77 (another example illustrated).
P. Sollers, De Kooning, Vite, Paris, 1988, no. 78 (another example illustrated in color).
D. Waldman, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1988, p. 121, no. 93 (another example illustrated).
B. Berkson and R. Downes, “Sub-title: Willem de Kooning, On His 85th Birthday,” Art Journal, Fall 1989, p. 244 (another example illustrated).
Kodansha Ltd., Contemporary Great Masters: Willem de Kooning, Tokyo, 1993, pp. 76-77, pl. 86 (another example illustrated in color).
“Artwork on Display,” Times-Georgian, 9 October 1994 (another example illustrated).
O. Spiegel, "Willem de Kooning: La Fuerza Expresiva del Gusto,” La Vanguardia Magazine, 20 March 1994, p. 62 (another example illustrated).
J. Zilczer, “Willem de Kooning, Pionero y Lider del Expresionismo Abstracto,” Panorama Fundación "la Caixa", March 1994, p. 3, fig. 6 (another example illustrated in color).
P. Braff, “A Hometown Tribute to de Kooning at 90,” The New York Times, 3 July 1994, p. 13 (another example illustrated).
R. Smith, “Long Island Shows Concentrate on Paintings,” The New York Times, 8 July 1994, p. C1 (another example illustrated).
D. C. Cateforis, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1994, fig. 4 (another example illustrated).
S. Chadwick, “Willem de Kooning: MFA Show Not as Abstract as Artist’s Vision,” Houston Post, 23 March 1995, p. D8 (another example illustrated).
J. Kutner, "Canvassing de Kooning’s Lifetime of Art: Thorough Exhibit Makes Abstract Pieces Accessible,” Dallas Morning News, 9 April 1995 (another example illustrated).
R. Hackett, “A Taste of de Kooning,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2 November 1995, p. D1 (another example illustrated in color).
J. Zilczer, “The Formation of the Hirshhorn Museum’s Willem de Kooning Collection,” Journal of the History of Collections, p. 123, no. 1, fig. 10 (another example illustrated).
V. Goldberg, “Why Painters Have Made Revolutionary Sculptors,” The New York Times, 16 October 1997 (another example illustrated).
S. Yard, Willem de Kooning, Barcelona, 1997, p. 102, no. 87 (another example illustrated).
H. R. Clinton, “Loaned Sculpture Fills White House Garden,” Washington Times, 5 November 1998.
S. B. Conroy, “Chips Off a Master’s Block: At the White House, Sculptures Inspired by Rodin,” Washington Post, 16 November 1998 (another example illustrated).
V. J. Fletcher, A Garden for Art: Outdoor Sculpture at the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 48, fig. 36 (another example illustrated in color).
S. Cheever, "Now and Then in Manhattan,” Architectural Digest, March 2000, p. 118 (another example illustrated in color).
D. Finn, David, et al., 20th Century American Sculpture in the White House Garden, New York, p. 104 (another example illustrated in color).
B. Hess, Willem de Kooning, Cologne, 2004, p. 104 (another example illustrated in color).
M. Stevens and A. Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2004, n.p. (another example illustrated in color).
J. Wullsschlager, “Freedom in Three Dimensions: The Sculptures Made by Many Great 20th-Century Painters Illuminate the Story of Modernism,” Financial Times, 19 July 2008, p. 15.
R. Shiff, Between Sense and de Kooning, London, 2011, p.181, no. 70 (another example illustrated in color).
K. Siegel, Abstract Expressionism: Themes and Movements, London, p. 193 (another example illustrated in color).
J. Landes, “de Kooning Show Swings for the Fences,” The East Hampton Star, 22 September 2011, p. C1 (illustrated in color).
M. Stevens, "Change Agent: Willem de Kooning Redefined Modern Painting. Then He Did It Again. And Again. A Major New Retrospective Charts His Seven-Decade Career," Smithsonian, October 2011, p. 80 (another example illustrated in color).
S. E. Fenson, “A Whole Man’s Life: MoMA Mounts a de Kooning Show as Vast and Varied as the Artist’s Career,” Art & Antiques, November 2011, p. 56 (another example illustrated in color).
K. Wilkin, “Museums Reveal Degas’s Nudes and Islam’s Splendor in ‘What We Liked in 2011,’” Wall Street Journal, 23 December 2011 (another example illustrated in color).
Baltimore Museum of Art, Willem de Kooning: Paintings, Sculpture, and Works on Paper, August-September 1972 (another example exhibited).
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, An Exhibition by de Kooning Introducing His Sculpture and New Paintings, October-November 1972, no. 43 (another example exhibited and illustrated).
The Detroit Institute of Arts, Art in Space, May-June 1973, fig. 5 (another example exhibited and illustrated).
Caracas, Museo de Bellas Artes; Bogota, Museo de Arte Moderno; Mexico City, Museo de Arte Moderno; Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo and Museu de Arte Moderna de Rio de Janeiro, Four Contemporary Masters: Bacon, Dubuffet, Giacometti, de Kooning, April-November 1973, no. K10 (another example exhibited and illustrated).
Minneapolis, Walker Art Center; Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada; Washington, D.C., The Phillips Collection; Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery; Houston, Museum of Fine Arts and St. Louis, Washington University Gallery of Art, De Kooning: Drawings/Sculptures, June 1974-June 1975, no. 141, fig. 63 (another example exhibited and illustrated).
Newport, Rhode Island, Monumenta: A Biennial Exhibition of Outdoor Sculpture, August-October 1974 (another example exhibited and illustrated).
Toronto, Pollock Gallery, De Kooning: Major Paintings and Sculpture, October-November 1974 (another example exhibited).
New York, Fourcade, Droll, Inc, De Kooning-New Works: Painting and Sculpture, October-December 1975 (another example exhibited).
West Palm Beach, Norton Gallery of Art, De Kooning: Paintings, Drawings, Sculpture 1967-1975, December 1975-February 1976, no. 21 (another example exhibited and illustrated).
Hartford, Wadsworth Atheneum, Matrix 15: A Changing Exhibition of Contemporary Art, Willem de Kooning, December 1975-January 1976 (another example exhibited and illustrated on the front cover).
Seattle Art Museum, De Kooning: New Paintings and Sculpture, February-March 1976 (another example exhibited).
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; Wilhelm-Lehmbruck-Museum der Stadt Duisburg; Gevena, Cabinet des Estampes, Musée d'art et d'histoire and Grenoble, Musée de Peinture et de Sculpture, Willem de Kooning: Beelden en Litho's, March 1976-September 1977, no. B15 (another example exhibited and illustrated).
Amsterdam, Collection d'Art, Willem de Kooning, May-July 1976 (another example exhibited).
Huntington, Heckscher Museum, Artists of Suffolk County/Part X: Recorders of History, May-June 1976, p. 16, no. 16 (another example exhibited and illustrated).
Los Angeles, James Corcoran Gallery, Willem de Kooning: Paintings, Drawings, Sculptures, May-June 1976 (another example exhibited).
Greenwich Arts Council, Sculpture 76: An Outdoor Exhibition of Sculpture by Fifteen Living American Artists, June-October 1976 (another example exhibited and illustrated).
University Art Museum, University of Texas, De Kooning: Lithographs, Sculpture and Painting, October-November 1976 (another example exhibited).
Sarah Campbell Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, De Kooning: Recent Works, January-February 1977 (another example exhibited).
New York, Xavier Fourcade, Inc., Twentieth Century Paintings and Sculpture: Matisse to de Kooning, March-April 1977 (another example exhibited).
Paris, Galerie Daniel Templon, Willem de Kooning: Peintres et Sculptures Recentes, September-October 1977 (another example exhibited).
Edinburgh, Fruit Market Gallery and London, Serpentine Gallery, The Sculptures of de Kooning with Related Paintings, Drawings & Lithographs, October 1977-January 1978, no. 15 (another example exhibited and illustrated).
Belgrade, Museum of Contemporary Art; Ljubljana, Museum of Modern Art; Bucharest, National Museum of Art; Warsaw, National Museum; Krakow, Branch Post; Helsinki National Museum of Art; Berlin, Amerika Haus; Alicante, Caja de Ahorros; Madrid, Fundación Juan March; Oslo, Norwegian National Gallery of Art and Dordrecht Museum, Willem de Kooning: Painting and Sculpture, October 1977-September 1979, p. 34, no. 14 (another example exhibited and illustrated).
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Willem de Kooning in East Hampton, February-April 1978, p.121, no. 90 (another example exhibited and illustrated).
New York, Xavier Fourcade, Inc., Large Scale, Small Scale, April-June 1978 (another example exhibited).
Bronx, Wave Hill Sculpture Garden, Figure in the Landscape, May-October 1978, n.p. (another example exhibited and illustrated).
Berkeley, University Art Museum, University of California, Matrix 12 (A Changing Exhibition of Contemporary Art): Willem de Kooning, August-October 1978 (another example exhibited).
Cedar Falls, Gallery of Art, University of Northern Iowa; The St. Louis Art Museum; Cincinnati, Contemporary Arts Center and Akron Art Institute, de Kooning, 1969-78, October 1978-June 1979, p. 42, no. 31 (another example exhibited and illustrated).
Pittsburgh, Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh International Series: Willem de Kooning, October 1979-January 1980, p. 135, no. 118 (another example exhibited and illustrated).
Milwaukee Art Museum; Cincinnati, Contemporary Arts Center; Columbus Museum of Art; Richmond, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; Champaign, Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois; Atlanta, High Museum of Art; Iowa City, University of Iowa Museum of Art; Memphis, Brooks Memorial Art Gallery and Austin, University Art Museum, University of Texas, Art in Our Time, October 1980-December 1982 (another example exhibited).
East Hampton, Guild Hall Museum, Willem de Kooning: Works from 1951-81, May-July 1981, p. 21, no. 69 (another example exhibited and illustrated).
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; Humlebæk, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art and Stockholm, Moderna Museet, Willem de Kooning: The North Atlantic Light, 1960-1983, May-October 1983 (another example exhibited).
New York, Xavier Fourcade, Inc., Willem de Kooning: The Complete Sculpture, 1969-1981, May-June 1983 (another example exhibited).
Cologne, Josef Haubrich Kunsthalle, Willem de Kooning: Skulpturen, September-October 1983 (another example exhibited).
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Berlin, Akademie der Künste and Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Willem de Kooning: Drawings – Paintings – Sculpture, December 1983-September 1984, p. 255, no. 270 (another example exhibited and illustrated).
Goslar, Das Mönchehaus Museum, the presentation of the Kaiserring to Willem de Kooning, September-October 1984 (another example exhibited).
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Transformations in Sculpture, November 1985-February 1986, p. 150 (another example exhibited and illustrated).
Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Selections from the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest, August-November 1986 (another example exhibited).
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, American Mastery: Eight Artists in the Permanent Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, June 1987-May 1988, pp. 33-34 (another example exhibited and illustrated).
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Art in Place: Fifteen Years of Acquisitions, July-October 1989, p. 208, no. 5 (another example exhibited and illustrated).
Seattle, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Modern Masters and the Figure: Picasso to de Kooning, September-November 1993, n.p. (another example exhibited).
Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Fundación "La Caixa"; Atlanta, High Museum of Art; Boston, Museum of Fine Arts and Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, Willem de Kooning from the Hirshhorn Museum Collection, October 1993-May 1995, fig. 6 (another example exhibited and illustrated).
New York, C&M Arts, Willem de Kooning: Selected Works 1950s-1980s, June-August 1994 (another example exhibited).
East Hampton, Guild Hall Museum, Celebrating Willem de Kooning: Selected Paintings and Sculpture, June-July 1994.
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Willem de Kooning: Paintings, October 1994-January 1995.
Seattle Art Museum, Willem de Kooning in Seattle: Selected Works from 1943-1985 in Public and Private Collections, November 1995-March 1996, n.p. (another example exhibited and illustrated).
New York, Gagosian Gallery, The Human Body in Contemporary American Sculpture, February-March 1996 (another example exhibited).
New York, Matthew Marks Gallery, Willem de Kooning: Sculpture, May-June 1996, p. 56, no. 17 (another example exhibited and illustrated).
Saint-Paul de Vence, Fondation Maeght, La Sculptures des Peintres, July-October 1997 (another example exhibited).
Washington, D.C., The White House, Twentieth Century American Sculpture at the White House-Exhibit VII: Inspried by Rodin,
September-October 1998 (another example exhibited).
New York, C & M Arts, Willem de Kooning: Selected Paintings and Sculpture 1964-1973, October-December 2000, no. 11 (another example exhibited and illustrated in color).
Potomac, Glenstone Foundation, Glenstone: The Inaugural Exhibition, September 2006-December 2008, p. 32, no. 5 (another example exhibited and illustrated in color).
Museum Frieder Burda Baden-Baden, Sculpture by Painters: Painting in Dialogue with Plastic Art, July-October 2008, p. 192, no. 114 (another example exhibited and illustrated in color).
Amsterdam, Temporary Stedelijk 2, Making Histories: Changing Views of the Collection, March-October 2011 (another example exhibited).
New York, Museum of Modern Art, de Kooning: A Retrospective, September 2011-January 2012, pp. 410-411, pl. 160, fig. 7 (illustrated in color).
New York, Mnuchin Gallery, Casting Modernity: Bronze in the XXth Century, April-June 2014, pp. 46-47, no. 7 (illustrated in color).
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Further details
Examples from the edition are in the collections of Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou; Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; New York, Whitney Museum of Art and Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Willem de Kooning’s Clamdigger is one of the most remarkable works of art to have been produced in the last fifty years and in many ways stands as a highly personal invocation of the spirit of its creator. Having remained in the artist’s personal collection since its inception, the close bond between de Kooning and this particular work is almost palpable. For the last four decades Clamdigger has stood guard at the entrance to de Kooning’s studio in Springs, New York—a place he moved to in the early 1960s to escape what he regarded as the distractions of Manhattan. The east end of Long Island became a haven for the artist, a place where he had the space and freedom to reflect on a life lived, and the life still to come. Here, Clamdigger became de Kooning’s Adam, an object created in his own image and every day, as he entered the studio, the artist would confront this sculpture. Looking into its noble features he could face himself, exposed in a raw state, and reflect on not only his own mortality, but also on the countless possibilities still to come. One of just twenty five works of sculpture that the artist created during a short period between 1969 and 1974, this work confirms de Kooning’s membership to a distinguished group of artists who made the successful transition from painting to produce works of sculpture. This exclusive group, led by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Edgar Degas, demonstrated that for a select few, their creative prowess was able to cross the restrictive boundaries of medium and allow their ingenuity to remain unrestrained. The intricate modeling and extraordinarily gnarled surface seen in Clamdigger is a combination of de Kooning’s unrivalled aesthetic vision and his masterful handling of his chosen medium. Having remained a part of de Kooning’s personal collection since it was cast in 1972, Clamdigger is one of the most significant works in the artist’s oeuvre. It’s hulking form acting as a self-portrait of the artist as he contemplated his artistic legacy. It stands as an astonishing example of work by one of the true giants of 20th century art, and represents his unrivalled combination of unrestrained imagination, ingenuity and superb technical competency.

Despite having been executed nearly half a century ago, the tactile nature and richness of the contorted surface of Clamdigger makes it appear as if de Kooning has only just stepped away from the act of its creation. This honorable figure, cast in bronze, radiates a palpable sense of self-possessed power and presence that goes well beyond its physical frame. Across every inch of its body, de Kooning’s sculpture displays the entire process of its creation. Even more than in his painting practice, evidence of the artist’s hand can be seen in the dramatic gestures that carve out the gouges and gorges of clay that constitute this quasi-human form; from the roughly hewn cavities of the body to the delicately realized features of the face, the range of gestures employed by the artist is dazzling. The resulting sculpture is one of the most extraordinary interactions ever to have taken place between an artist and his materials.

The looming figure of the clam digger possesses a primeval quality that is perfectly matched by the nature of the subject as well as its material quality. Looking as though he has just emerged from the muddy waters at the edge of the ocean, the figure exudes a visceral quality that is rich with texture and animation. From within the flurry of de Kooning’s artistic gestures, a torso, limbs, and facial expressions slowly begin to coalesce into the recognizable form of a human male. Yet this is not the rendition of the perfect human specimen celebrated in classical sculpture; this is an honest appraisal of the contemporary human condition as de Kooning sees it, trapped in a quasi-existential quagmire.

Laden down with heavy oversized feet, the upright figure is anchored directly to the ground from which it has emerged. The diminutive head evokes Neanderthal man, complete with recessed eyes, a crumpled nose and pursed lips. The head appears to be fused directly to the body, giving the impression of a hunched figure struggling to free itself from its earthly shackles. De Kooning places heavy emphasis on the bodily appendages that he attaches to his figure’s solid torso. The figure’s left arm snakes around itself and ends in a large flat protrusion that is part hand/part tool, like the ones the clam diggers used to extricate their prey from the mud. The right hand holds an extra arm in place of a clam digger’s rake, carried club-like as if going into battle.

In the same way as his paintings, de Kooning’s sculptures were the result of a visceral creative process which tapped into the same instinctual—almost primitive—expressionistic forces that produced some of the artist’s greatest works. To encourage this, the artist often modeled his figures with his eyes closed, enabling him to feel the potency, energy and movement of his materials directly through his fingers. This technique allowed him to develop a direct, almost intuitive relationship with his work, as if he was working on an extension of his own body. As Claire Stoulling notes, “Like Mondrian, who was deeply fascinated by dance, de Kooning is absorbed by the experience of confronting his own body, as if he were face to face with another whom he tries to manipulate visually and tactilely, limb for limb, body for body, in order to guarantee the organic quality of the sculptures. (C. Stoulling, “The Sculptures of Willem de Kooning,” Willem de Kooning, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1983, p. 241).

The most notable quality of this sculpture is its highly tangible surface, something which the artist worked hard to achieve. He employed a wide variety of techniques to attain his desired effect, ranging from using his bare hands for modeling the delicately detailed areas of the face to putting on a pair of thick workman’s gloves when he needed to produce a more dramatic effect. De Kooning found that by wearing the heavy duty gloves he could not only control the slippery clay more effectively, but he could also emphasize the gestures that his hands and fingers made as he manipulated the wet clay.

Initially de Kooning had reservations about using such wet clay, but those soon evaporated when he saw what he was able to achieve. “In some ways, clay is even better than oil,” de Kooning told Craft Horizons magazine in 1972. “You can work and work on a painting but you can’t start over again with the canvas like it was before you put that first stroke down. And sometimes, in the end, it’s not 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 I changed my mind, I can break it down and start over. It’s always fresh” (W. de Kooning, quoted by M. Stevens & A. Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2003, p. 544). This process of change was constant. In the case of Clamdigger, de Kooning had originally envisioned the sculpture to stand seven or eight feet high, but over the course of several revisions, he finally settled on proportions more akin to his own height. According to David Christian “…it went through countless versions of heads, two of which were cast from the figure in progress in order not to lose them” (D. Christian, quoted in J. Zilczer, op. cit., p. 545).

Although de Kooning had experimented with three-dimensional forms as early as the 1930s—he was employed for a short period making commercial window displays and occasionally used plaster mannequins dressed in woman’s clothing as models for his paintings during the Depression—de Kooning’s true journey into sculpture began in 1969 while on a two month trip to Italy. He had travelled to Europe to participate in the Festival of the Two Worlds, a music and art event held in Spoleto. He spent much of his time in Rome, soaking up the atmosphere of the Eternal City. It was here that one day, while sitting in a local café, he was reunited with Herzl Emanuel, a sculptor friend from New York who had moved to Rome several years earlier. Excited at reconnecting with his old friend, Emanuel invited de Kooning to his studio to see what he had been working on. The small studio, together with its basic foundry, enthused de Kooning, who immediately began molding small pieces of clay into rudimentary figures, as Herzl Emanuel later recalled. “He was totally enthralled by the whole ambience,” he said “and expressed a very strong desire to ‘play’ with some clay. He spent the following month working in a small studio that I kept in the rear of the foundry, during which he produced 13 or 14 small sketches, which I cast for him in bronze” (H. Emanuel, quoted in J. Zilczer, op. cit., p. 196).

Clamdigger was the first work in this series of large-scale sculpture, and is without a doubt the most accomplished. Produced in his studio in East Hampton, de Kooning, assisted by David Christian, would construct a complex armature out of wood and metal supports upon which the artist would begin to build the gnarled figure. Using layer-upon-layer of very wet, malleable clay de Kooning would create the form—moving, kneading and twisting the material as required–until he produced the desired effect. De Kooning worked in the round, placing Clamdigger on a movable wooden base so that he could inspect the figure from a variety of angles. Photographs taken at the time show him carefully assessing the overall aesthetic of the work, stepping back to view all angles, before he was finally satisfied with the result.

Ultimately, for de Kooning, all art was all about expressing what he wanted to, be it on canvas or in three dimensions. Just as he did in his paintings, with his sculptural works de Kooning was able to capture the visceral energy in his subjects, catching the moment and the movement and then freezing them in whichever medium he chose. Here, de Kooning’s work has much in common with that of one of the preeminent modern sculptors of all time, Auguste Rodin. The Frenchman once defined sculpture as “an image in which the arms, the legs, the trunk, and the head are each taken at a different instant, an image which therefore portrays the body in an attitude which it never really at any instant held and which imposes fictive linkages between the parts, as if this mutual confrontation of incomprehensibles could, and could alone, cause transition and duration to arise in bronze and on canvas” (A. Rodin, quoted by C. Stoulling, Ibid., p. 241).

The clam digger motif is one of de Kooning’s most enduring subjects and was inspired by the men and women he witnessed digging for shell fish on the beaches near his East Hampton home. Before executing the present work, de Kooning had used the motif in a number of paintings and lithographs, most notably in 1963 with Clam Diggers, the first major Women painting of the 1960s which features two voluptuously rendered female figures. Although he worked almost exclusively with the female form, Clamdigger is clearly male and has strong parallels with de Kooning himself. The Dutchman had a lifelong connection to the water having been born in the North Sea port of Rotterdam, and in 1963 he left New York for good, leaving the pressures and distractions of New York behind for the open spaces and watery landscapes of Long Island. Inspired by the quality of the light, and his new found sense of freedom, de Kooning’s works from this period possess a more self-assured quality that had existed before. “Like this clam digger, de Kooning himself, exhausted from the fifties, was still struggling to recast himself. In 1972, his relationship with Mimi [Kilgore] brought him more happiness than he had known in years. With Clamdigger he seemed to be reaching back, perhaps to the child for whom touch was the first truth” (M. Stevens & A. Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2003, p. 550).

This sculpture is rare within the artist’s oeuvre as it features a male figure. Previously de Kooning had turned to men as his subject matter on only a few occasions, including a small series of paintings he completed in the late 1930s and early-to-mid 1940s. In these works, the artist began to dismantle the body, presenting us with a powerful yet disjointed figure, whose limbs have often become detached from their host and rejoined elsewhere. Often modeled on his own body, these early images show de Kooning exploring a different way of relating to the human body, something which would become apparent in Clamdigger, in addition to later development of Abstract Expressionism “In a highly transformed state, the powerful bodies painted by…de Kooning…provide one of the essential ingredients for the brawny bravado of the gestural branch of Abstract Expressionism”
(H. Herrera, quoted by J. Elderfield, op. cit., p. 92).

Clamdigger remained in the artist’s private collection ever since it was cast in 1972. For him it became an intensely personal object, a physical manifestation of his spirit both personally and artistically. De Kooning placed this sculpture in a hugely symbolic location within his East Hampton home, commanding the hallway that linked the living area to his studio complex. Forced to confront Clammdigger every morning, de Kooning was, in a very great sense, also forced to confront his own mortality as an artist. As such, Clamdigger becomes an allegory of his career as an artist and a prescient herald of the greatness that was still to come.

Executed in 1972, Clamdigger is the work that recast Willem de Kooning in his rightful position as one of the pre-eminent artists of his generation. For much of the 1950s, the artist had been the de facto king of the New York art world, and along with Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Joan Mitchell ruled his court from the bar at the Cedar Tavern. De Kooning’s 1959 exhibition of large scale abstractions at Sidney Janis received laudatory reviews “No pure abstract geometry ever elated people as de Kooning’s latest paintings at their preview in May, 1959. More abstract than any previous de Kooning paintings, they seem even more intensely real. The old violence now communicates a most remarkable triumph and exhilaration. Calligraphy and forms merge in brush strokes so huge and spattering that they seem created with an energy and speed beyond human” (H. Janis & R. Blesh, quoted by M. Stevens & A. Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2003, p. 412). But within the span of a few years, de Kooning was forced to relinquish his thrown in favor of a new band of young pretenders—namely Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein—as the Pop Art revolution had begun.

In 1967 a triumphal new chapter in de Kooning’s life began when he signed with a new dealer, Xavier Fourcade. The feelings of liberation that de Kooning experienced while working on Clamdigger was emblematic of this period of renewed rejuvenation. In 1970 he met and fell in love with Emilie Kilgore, a relationship which brought him a sense of renewed joy and happiness. It also foretold a remarkable revival in his painting practice as he began to transfer the fluidity of his sculptural forms into the extraordinary ribbons of color that dominated his paintings from that period. A continuation of a theme he began early in 1960, these paintings form the culmination of much that de Kooning had attempted in the past but never resolved. When he had first moved to Springs near East Hampton on Long Island de Kooning had enjoyed the unique landscape of the area, and this in many ways had entered and informed his work. Now in the mid-’70s he became increasingly preoccupied with his immediate environment, its light and topography as well as, in particular, the wateriness of the landscape around Louse Point. “When I moved into this house,” de Kooning observed in 1976, “everything seemed self-evident. The space, the light, the trees—I just accepted it without thinking about it much. Now I look around with new eyes. I think it’s all a kind of miracle” (De Kooning quoted in M. Prather, Willem de Kooning Paintings, exh. cat. Washington, D.C., 1994, p. 197).

Along with artists such as Rembrandt and Picasso, de Kooning is one of the few artists who responded to their advancing age with renewed impetus and vigor. The quiet, powerful contemplation of Rembrandt’s late portraits and the unrestrained bravado of Picasso’s Mousquetaire paintings reflect their continuing status as artists of repute. For de Kooning, he found his renewed potency in sculpture—a medium that acted as the foundation for the rest of his career. “From the outset he approached the sculpture medium with a totally original outlook,” David Christian once said, “and from the get-go [he] had little consideration of how either clay or even the sculpture medium has been approached historically; that is, either technically, or in terms of the final product” (D. Christian, quoted by J. Elderfield, De Kooning: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011, p. 411). This approach resulted in a work that is widely regarded as the most important sculpture of the Abstract Expressionist movement, and is, in fact, one of de Kooning’s greatest works in any medium. Alongside Alberto Giacometti’s Walking Man, the dramatic and seductive form of Clamdigger could also be recognized as a crowning achievement of 20th century sculpture.

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Kevie Yang
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