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A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection

Two Figures

Two Figures
oil on canvas
36 x 48 in. (76.2 x 121.9 cm.)
Pained in 1968-1972.
Estate of Willem de Kooning, New York
Matthew Marks Gallery, New York
Private collection, Australia
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2009
E. Leiser, Willem de Kooning and the Unexpected, Zurich, 1979 (video).
K. Wilkie, "Willem de Kooning: Portrait of a Modern Master", Holland Herald, 1982, p. 22 (studio view illustrated).
Abstract Expressionism - A World Elsewhere, exh. cat., New York, Haunch of Venison, 2008, p. 131 (studio view illustrated).
de Kooning: a Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2011, p. 440 (studio view illustrated).
Willem de Kooning, The Figure: Movement and Gesture; Paintings, Sculpture and Drawings, exh. cat., New York, Pace Gallery, April-July 2011, n.p. (studio view illustrated).
J. Zilczer, A Way of Living: The Art of Willem de Kooning, London, 2014, pp. 222 and 237 (studio view illustrated).
New York, Matthew Marks Gallery, Willem de Kooning: Sculpture, May-June 1996.
Paddington, Martin Browne Fine Art, A Selection of Post-War International Paintings and Sculpture, July-August 1997 (illustrated).
Sale room notice
The medium of this lot should read ‘oil on canvas’.

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Michael Baptist
Michael Baptist Associate Vice President, Specialist, Co-Head of Day Sale

Lot Essay

"Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented. Never before in history had it taken such a place in painting". (W. de Kooning, quoted in “The Renaissance and Order,” in T. Hess, Willem de Kooning, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1968, p. 142).

Painted over a four-year period between 1968-1972, Willem de Kooning’s Two Figures confidently demonstrates the artist’s ability to continuously adapt his past work, while pushing forward into new territory. Leveraging his groundbreaking handling of paint in service of figural abstraction, de Kooning fills the painted surface with a lively dance of gestural forms rapidly fluctuating between recognizable attributes and raw expression. “Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented,” de Kooning once claimed. “Never before in history had it taken such a place in painting” (W. de Kooning, quoted in “The Renaissance and Order,” in T. Hess, Willem de Kooning, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1968, p. 142). Beginning in the 1950s, he began an investigation of the human form and limits of representation. Working with heavy brushes, thinned paints, and myriad pieces of cloth, paper, and other materials, de Kooning made plain his painterly investigation for all to see. Harnessing the sumptuous nature of his medium, the painter continued to explore one of the oldest subjects as the denizens of his investigations in oil threaten to fuse completely with the heady mixture of liquid and pigment.

A whirl of color colliding with an expanse of white canvas, Two Figures once again proves de Kooning’s emotive might. Mixing bold incursions with areas of more fluid, hazy color, the artist establishes a visual narrative that pulls the viewer through the painting’s formation. Every stroke, smudge, and drip is on display as they coalesce into a boldly unified composition. On the right, a flurry of yellow, peach, and blue transform into two faces in profile. Their simplified circular eyes stare out at the viewer while simultaneously locking sightlines with each other. The rightmost character has the toothy grimace and red lips of his famed Woman, its dark hair cascading off of the canvas in an energetic rush of black and crimson. The left figure seems to have lighter yellow and orange hair and appears to be reaching across the canvas toward what may be the disembodied arm of someone out of frame. Like Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, de Kooning’s lines touch in an empty white space that buoys his colorful composition into the heavens. Floating upon the lightness of open canvas, the artist’s machinations are free to pulse and connect, creating a kinetic energy that is increasingly palpable as one views the work. Art critic David Sylvester exclaimed about de Kooning’s work, “These paintings are crystallizations of the experience and amazement of having body and mind dissolve into another who is all delight.” (D. Sylvester, “Flesh was the Reason” in Willem de Kooning Paintings, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., 1994, p. 30). Transmuting flesh into paint and paint into raw vitality, de Kooning instills an absorptive power into the very heart of his canvas.

The period in which Two Figures was painted was a time of great activity for de Kooning. His artistic evolution was underway as his densely packed early style was beginning to open up to other possibilities. Having moved out of the city in the early 1960s, a sense of lightness and natural space entered into his canvases. Critic Harold Rosenberg interviewed the artist in 1972 about this fact, to which the painter replied, “I wanted to get back to a feeling of light in painting…I wanted to get in touch with nature. Not painting scenes from nature, but to get a feeling of that light was very appealing to me...” (W. de Kooning, quoted in H. Rosenberg, “Interview with Willem de Kooning,” ARTnews 71, September 1972, p. 58). Rather than shift the subject matter to pastoral landscapes and gardens, de Kooning infused his practice with an airy sense of space that lifted his canvases into a new evolution. Creating a dynamic sense of push and pull between the figure, paint, white space, and the physical surface, works like the current example lilt and swoon before the viewer while still retaining the vigorous intensity of the artist’s early career.

"These paintings are crystallizations of the experience and amazement of having body and mind dissolve into another who is all delight". (D. Sylvester, “Flesh was the Reason” in Willem de Kooning Paintings, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., 1994, p. 30).

De Kooning’s working methods were as complex and intricate as his roiling abstractions. Never content to merely lay paint to canvas, he would often mix and dilute his colors in a variety of ways so that they applied in a translucent pool onto his surfaces. Writing about a visit to the artist’s studio, Thomas B. Hess noted that the painter “mixes his colors in glass salad bowls, with safflower oil and water emulsified by a little kerosene, and beats them to a fluffy consistency. The colors are applied to stretched canvases with three-inch house-painter’s brushes—the kind you buy in any hardware store—and with long-handled liners that used to be manufactured for scenery and display artists and now are special-ordered from the factory. De Kooning is amused by this custom-tailored detail in his methodology. He is even more eloquent about the house-painter’s brushes; he likes them, he says, old, dirty, frayed, doddering, neatly ranged on his palette, the brushes remind you of Depression-days bread-lines. Poignant. Hapless. And, in the artist’s small muscular hand, supremely efficient” (T. Hess, “In De Kooning’s Studio” Vogue, New York, April 1978, pp. 236-239). Taking great pleasure in his idiosyncratic setup, he approached the canvas with all manner of tools in order to achieve the result he sought. But applying the brush was only half of the process. After the color was down, de Kooning would sometimes wet it to spread the paint out even more or, as in Two Figures, he would introduce various external materials. Pressing sheets of paper onto the painted surface, the artist would peel them away to reveal blended areas that helped him see the composition in a new light. Sometimes these de facto monotypes would end up as works in their own right, and other times he would cut and reposition the results into a collage.

Two Figures is a prime example of the individualism and dynamism associated with de Kooning’s output of the 1960s, evidencing that his engagement with the female figure worked to transcend the tension between picture and event, observation and genre. De Kooning’s sensuous paintings provoke what it means to depict elementally and radically: “I have no opinion on women… I do not particularly stress the masculine or feminine viewpoint. I am concerned only with human values” (S. de Hirsch, “A Talk with de Kooning,” Intro Bulletin: A Literary Newspaper of the Arts 1, no. 1 (October 1955), p. 1 & 3).

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