With his ‘Woman’ paintings of the early 1950s, Willem de Kooning produced one of the most groundbreaking series in 20th-century art, not to mention one of the more controversial.
In abandoning the pure abstraction of previous masterpieces such as Excavation, de Kooning turned the era’s leading art critic Clement Greenberg — and others — against him. Greenberg had been an early champion, but he disliked the way the artist was now slipping into figurative mode with his depictions of female figures.
‘By the early ’50s, de Kooning was a painter of growing renown with a blue-chip abstract style,’ explains his biographer Mark Stevens. ‘Most of his contemporaries believed he would continue to produce paintings in that style. But in one of the most contrary and independent acts in the history of American art, he gave up.’
The Woman paintings aren’t wholly figurative — far from it. They remain, to a large extent, abstract. In works such as Woman (Green), 1953-55 — which is offered in the 20th Century Evening Sale on 6 October at Christie’s New York — few body parts are clearly delineated, except the wide eyes, small mouth and large breasts.
The image is a riot of colours, smears and whiplash strokes, in which it’s hard to tell where the ground ends and the figure begins. The painting seems almost to assemble itself before our eyes.
Like the other works in the series, Woman (Green) is the culmination of a myriad reworkings, deletions and restarts — along with his fellow Abstract Expressionists, de Kooning rejected the notion of a finished product. He said he never worked with ‘the idea of perfection’, preferring just ‘to see how far [he] could go’.
‘Sure, anger is there, but so is love, desperation, tenderness, joy, and hilarity’ — biographer Mark Stevens
He duly diluted his paints with turpentine and stand oil, creating a slow-drying surface that enabled constant revision. In Woman (Green), the surface is so built-up, with layer piled upon layer, that the viewer’s eye is never allowed to settle.
The painting was first exhibited, alongside a handful of other works from the series, at the Martha Jackson Gallery in 1955. It was two years since de Kooning had shown the first six works from the series, including Woman I, which now resides in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
As for the controversy, that stemmed from the fact that many feminist critics saw the Woman paintings as deeply macho, or even outright misogynistic. The aggressive nature of de Kooning’s technique seemed to be an act of violence against the females in question.
For Stevens, however, calling de Kooning a misogynist is simple-minded. ‘It caricatures a complicated sensibility,’ he says. ‘Sure, anger is there, but so is love, desperation, tenderness, joy, and hilarity.’
The artist himself admitted that inspiration for his Woman series came from far and wide, with sources including Mesopotamian idols in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as the model from an advertisement for Camel cigarettes.
Another mooted inspiration for some of de Kooning’s females was the Rembrandt painting A Woman Bathing in a Stream in London’s National Gallery, in which the subject holds up her skirt as she wades into the water.
Sign up today
Christie's Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
Over the decades, some commentators have tried to put a psychoanalytical spin on the paintings, suggesting they were inspired by the artist’s domineering mother. When de Kooning was still a boy — in the custody of his father, following his parents’ divorce — she had violently snatched him back for good.
The truth is, of course, that the Woman series derives its very strength from its ambiguity and multivalency. Ancient met modern, creation came out of destruction, and abstract met figurative — in a canvas of thrillingly unresolved tension.