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

Woman (Green)

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
Woman (Green)
signed 'de Kooning' (lower right)
oil and charcoal on canvas
30 ¼ x 23 ¼ in. (76.8 x 59.1 cm.)
Executed in 1953-1955.
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
Milton Gordon, New York
Private collection, New York
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 4 November 1987, lot 53
Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago
Private collection, United States
Private collection, New York
Barbara Annis Fine Art, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2006
L. Steinberg, "De Kooning's Woman," Arts Magazine, November 1955 (illustrated with incorrect title).
T. Hess, de Kooning, New York, 1959, nos. 125 and 137 (illustrated with incorrect title).
L. Steinberg, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth Century Art, New York, 1972, p. 256, no. 173 (illustrated with incorrect title).
R. Long, "The Mysteries of de Kooning: A Pair of New York Shows Span the Great Painter's Career," The East Hampton Star, 6 May 2004.
New York, Martha Jackson Gallery, Recent Oils by Willem de Kooning, 1955, no. 8.
New York, Richard Gray Gallery, Willem de Kooning: Paintings from the Forties and Fifties, May 2004.

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Lot Essay

A totemic presence formed of virtuoso, whiplash streaks and strokes of oil paint, Woman (Green) (1953-55) is a scintillating work from one of the most groundbreaking groups of paintings in twentieth-century art: Willem de Kooning’s Woman series. Bearing wide, almost cartoonish eyes, rouged cheeks and a blue headscarf, the woman meets our gaze with a head-on smile. Dark, kinetic lines through zones of green, teal and marbled red limn the fertile curves of her body, pushing and pulling among planes of pale pink and dripped sky blue. De Kooning creates the ambiguity between figure and ground that is typical of his work, clashing gestural and pictorial impulses into a space of thrilling, unresolved tension. The present work followed the 1953 exhibition at Sidney Janis Gallery of de Kooning’s first group of Women paintings, which included Woman I (1950-1952, Museum of Modern Art, New York)—what Peter Schjeldahl has called “the most controversial painting ever made in America” (P. Schjeldahl, “Shifting Picture: A de Kooning Retrospective”, New Yorker, September 19, 2011). Woman (Green) sees the artist’s 1950s idiom at its dynamic, peacock-hued height, embodying his epoch-defining vision of the female form and paving the way for the superlative abstract paintings that would follow.

Woman (Green) was shown in a 1955 exhibition at Martha Jackson Gallery, alongside works including Marilyn Monroe (1954, Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, NY), Woman-Ochre (1954-55, University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson), Queen of Hearts, and Two Women in the Country (1943-46 and 1954, both Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.). Only de Kooning’s fifth solo exhibition, Recent Oils by De Kooning cemented his position as the leading figure of New York’s avant-garde. The critic Dore Ashton considered these Woman paintings more refined than those on show in 1953, and saw them as illuminating the “apogee of abstract power” attained in Composition (1955, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York)—one of just two abstract works on display. “His paintings judged on the whole are valid for their intense emotional quality (unanalyzable by discursive means)”, she wrote, “and are greater in abstract or generalized emotional content than the sum or their parts. By this I mean that neither the extraordinary handling of paint nor the use of a theme, be it woman or excavation, amounts to the elusive, emotional something these paintings are invested with. All of experience is his field, but in recent years, he happens to have fixed his focus on woman. And in setting a limit, and his sights, de Kooning has carded his own emotions in a point where they can be universalized for the rest of us” (D. Ashton, “Art”, Arts and Architecture 72, December 1955, p. 34).

Ever since the Janis exhibition, which had elicited reactions from the rhapsodic to the horrified, de Kooning’s Woman paintings had been a source of great public fascination. Thomas B. Hess’s article “De Kooning Paints a Picture,” published in the March 1953 issue of Art News, had already made something mythic of the painter’s motives and process. Documenting the turbulent two-year gestation of Woman I, which involved a pitched battle of countless drawings, revisions, deletions and near-failures before it “escaped” the artist to be exhibited, Hess touched on ideas that are central to the debate around these paintings’ meanings to this day: their relationship to the idols of ancient history and to contemporary images of the “modern” woman; their interplays of destructive and creative action; and the implications of a “masculine” artistic treatment of a feminine subject. “Ambiguity exactingly sought and exactingly left undefined has been the recurrent theme in Woman,” he wrote. “Ambiguity appears in surface, parts, illusion of space, in masking, overlays, interchangeable anatomies, intimate proportions and colors, no-environment, etc.” (T. B. Hess, “De Kooning Paints a Picture”, Art News, March 1953, p. 67). This formal approach to understanding the “ambiguity” de Kooning achieved in works like Woman (Green) remains perhaps the best route to appreciating their complex symbolic import. How did de Kooning achieve this electrically off-balance and open-ended image, so unlike anything else that had been painted before, and so distinct from the work of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries?

Born in Rotterdam in 1904, de Kooning began apprenticing for a decorating firm as a teenager before studying a rigorous course at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. By the time he arrived as a stowaway in New York in 1926, he was a highly-accomplished draughtsman, with a knowledge of classical perspective, color theory and anatomy. This fluency would set him apart from the less thoroughly trained cohort at the Cedar Tavern—artists like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, who had little facility in figurative drawing—and placed him in a fundamentally different relationship with the figure. In his Woman paintings, de Kooning brought to bear ideas from artists as diverse as Chaïm Soutine and Ingres, while also employing techniques learnt from commercial sign-painting: masking off areas to create abrupt edges to gestural sweeps, for example, or in-filling edges as one would when painting outlined letters, creating a frenetic oscillation between foreground and background.

As Schjeldahl observes, these innovative dramas take place in a Cubist-derived space which de Kooning had arrived at through the help of his friend and mentor Arshile Gorky, whom he first met in the late 1920s. “A mark by de Kooning always has more than one thing on its mind: direction, contour, composition, velocity”, he writes. “The mark lies on the surface and digs into pictorial space. It makes a shape of itself and describes shapes next to it. Such doubleness derives from Cubism, which gave de Kooning his initial orientation. With crucial guidance from Arshile Gorky, who showed him ways around Picasso’s intimidatingly authoritative permutations, de Kooning blew open the Cubist grid, changing its mode from structural to fluid. De Kooning is to classical Cubism as flying is to walking” (P. Schjeldahl, “Willem de Kooning”, November 1, 1994, in Hot, Cold, Heavy Light: 100 Art Writings 1988-2018, New York 2019, p. 13).

The diversity of responses to de Kooning’s Woman paintings is testament to the artist’s flight into fluidity, multivalence and ambiguity. Even the detail of the mouth blooms into the unstable “doubleness” Schjeldahl identifies. In a 1960 interview with David Sylvester, de Kooning cited archaic idols as a possible influence: “I don’t know why I did it with the mouth. Maybe the grin. It’s rather like the Mesopotamian idols, you know. They always stand up straight looking to the sky with this smile, like they were just astonished about the forces of nature” (W. de Kooning, quoted in D. Sylvester, “The Birth of ‘Woman I’”, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 137, no. 1105, April 1995, p. 224). Later on in the same interview, however, he discussed how early states of Woman I revolved around the collaged mouth of a woman from an advert for Camel cigarettes. The mouth can be seen at once as the locus of a primordial earth-mother image—what Leo Steinberg famously called “a first emergence, unsteeped from a tangle of desire and fear, with some millennia of civilizing evolution still ahead of her” (L. Steinberg, “Willem de Kooning Shows Recent Painting in ‘Woman’ Series”, Arts Magazine, November 1955, p. 46)—and take her place among the shoppers of Madison Avenue and the sirens of postwar popular culture. As Hess saw it, “Woman and the pictures related to it should be fixed to the sides of trucks, or used as highway signs. Like those more-than-beautiful girls with their eternal smiles who do not tempt, but simply point to a few words or a beer or a gadget … she simply sits, is there, and smiles because that is the proper thing to do in America” (T. B. Hess, ibid.).

Across a panoply of readings—mythic and banal, primitive and Pop, fearsome and friendly—the perceived violence of de Kooning’s technique has often led to the Woman paintings being seen as expressions of misogyny. Certainly, there seems little to commend as feminist in a male artist taking the female body as his painterly battleground. As Schjeldahl points out, however, the woman is created through de Kooning’s strokes: with every blow, if that’s what they are, she becomes stronger. “His brushwork in these pictures is often called ‘slashing’, but the Woman is made of the swipes he takes at her. The effect of a Pygmalion despite himself is self-mocking” (P. Schjeldahl, “‘Women’ by Willem de Kooning and Jean Dubuffet”, January 8, 1992, in Hot, Cold, Heavy Light: 100 Art Writings 1988-2018, New York 2019, p. 17). This self-deprecation—the genius painter reduced to nothing, the canvas become a goddess—perhaps lies at the heart of these paintings’ ambivalence, and of their frequently overlooked humor. With her extravagant make-up and unstable, magnificent, impossible form, Woman (Green) is a powerful yet ultimately playful masterpiece, breaking new pictorial ground in a vision that touches on both the splendor and absurdity of all creative endeavor.

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