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Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
Property from a Distinguished Private Collection
Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)

Figures in a Landscape #2

Details
Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
Figures in a Landscape #2
signed 'de Kooning' (on the reverse)
oil on paper laid down on canvas
30 1/4 x 35 1/8 in. (76.8 x 89.2 cm.)
Painted in 1976.
Provenance
Xavier Fourcade, New York
Acquavella Galleries, New York
Cohen Gallery, New York
Allan Stone Collection, New York
Their sale; Sotheby's, New York, 9 May 2011, lot 23
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Literature
J. Wolfe, "Van Wim Tot Bill de Kooning," Jong Holland, v. 1, 1994, p. 26 (illustrated).
J. Wolfe, The Young Willem de Kooning: Early Life, Training and Work, 1904-1926, Ann Arbor, 1996, pp. xxxix and 590, fig. 331.
Exhibited
University of Houston, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Gallery, de Kooning: Recent Works, January-February 1977.
Amsterdam, Collection d'Art, Willem de Kooning, October-December 1977.
Cedar Falls, University of Northern Iowa Gallery of Art; St. Louis Art Museum; Cincinatti, Contemporary Arts Center and Akron Art Institute, de Kooning, 1969-78, October 1978-June 1979, p. 18, no. 9.
Seattle, Richard Hines Gallery, Willem de Kooning. Paintings, Sculpture, Drawings, January-March 1980.
Düsseldorf, Galerie Hans Strelow, Willem de Kooning - Gemälde, Skulpturen, Zeichnungen, November-December 1980.
Milan, Studio Marconi, de Kooning: dipinti, disegni, sculture, March-April 1985, p. 34 (illustrated in color).
New York, Acquavella Galleries, XIX & XX Century Master Paintings and Sculpture, April-May 1990, p. 74, no. 32 (illustrated in color).

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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

At first glance, Figures in a Landscape #2, 1976, seems an energized mass of positive and negative spaces, curvilinear contours enclosing unidentifiable forms, colors randomly fixed in an untethered visual field. Yet closer scrutiny brings to the eye more graspable forms amid the scrawled painterly markings, visual clues that aid excavation. One can make out human forms, body parts – hands, genitals, breasts, heads – roiling, clasped together and projecting forward from a whorl of colors and shapes. Warm yellow, orange, and red are complemented by the occasional saturated blue and blue-green, creating a device of tonal framing that would contain such writhing pictographs, sgraffito harking back to details of de Kooning’s celebrated Woman series of the 1950s as well as to Cy Twombly’s scatological brews from the same period. And even as de Kooning decried Cubists’ strivings to present simultaneous views of a single object or scene—“it is so silly to look at that object from many angles”—the artist was deeply committed to such ideas. Figures in a Landscape #2 with its multiple views and motivic iterations, presents de Kooning at work on one such single idea—that of eliminating compositional arrangement. The artists earlier Woman Series catalyzed this artistic direction: “It did one thing for me: it eliminated composition arrangement, relationships, light—all this silly talk about line, color and form—because that was the thing I wanted to get hold of…. It’s good that [Matisse, the Cubists, and the Constructionists] got those ideas because it was enough to make some of them artists” (W. de Kooning, quoted in Philip Larson, “De Kooning’s Drawings,” De Kooning drawings/sculptures, exh. cat., Walker Art Center, 1975-75, p. 20).

Indeed, the leading Abstract Expressionists of the period (de Kooning and Jackson Pollock) were very much concerned with the extension and elaboration of Cubist space that we see in Figures in a Landscape #2. This is foreshadowed in Pollock’s 1946 painting Shimmering Substance, with its allover flattened pictorial surface filled with heat-infused interlocking contours. By 1975, de Kooning had embarked upon a new phase of painting, one in which we see the artist again take up the female body and, in effect, fuse its features with male genitalia and visions of the surrounding landscape. In creating a sort of hybrid abstraction, that is to say, shapes with occasional fragments of identifiable imagery, light is captured in shallow space and made to illuminate a seething lateral planar surface.

De Kooning’s process for Figures in a Landscape #2 and works after 1975 sometimes involved a loose scaling up by freehand of older drawings or photographs of previous paintings. These motifs were then layered with naturalistic colors taken from the countryside in the Springs, East Hampton, New York, where de Kooning had begun to re-envision “…the space, the light the trees… [to] look around with new eyes” (W. de Kooning quoted in D. Sylvester, Willem de Kooning: Paintings, Washington, D.C., 1994, p. 197). The comment to Harold Rosenberg from 1972—“I wanted to get back to a feeling of light in painting… to get a feeling of that light….”— describes what de Kooning rendered completely in Figures in a Landscape #2 in 1976. Essentially drawn with a brush, the artist has created here a confluence of human forms and landscape, using fluid open lines that explode rays of white and yellow light by means of the exposed white ground, as one might do in watercolor. The way in which de Kooning exploits the pinkish body color and whites of both oil paint and the support on which this work has been executed relates to J. M. W. Turner’s technique of infusing a field of color with white light, as he does, for example, in a drawing from 1841, Fire at the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London. While perhaps more saturated and rendered in a thicker impasto, de Kooning has achieved in Figures in a Landscape #2 a similar luminosity and atmosphere to that of the elder master in his use of reds mixed with whites and yellow mixed with and accented by blues and greens.

Another aspect of Figures in a Landscape #2 that should be considered is the optical, what one takes in with the eye alone, in the sense that de Kooning complicates vision by constantly undermining conventional strategies of visual orientation. Part of de Kooning’s testing of painterly skills is, in fact, their undoing, the “de-skilling” strategies that the artist put himself through, from the time of his “blind drawings” in the 1960s to the shaking loose of conventional visual orientation. As he said, “I try to free myself from the notion of top and bottom, left and right, from realism! Everything should float” (M. Prather, “Catalogue,” in Willem de Kooning: Paintings, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1994, p. 174). By using such strategies of disruption, de Kooning was able to resist becoming over-identified with the act of painting. By creating works that could be viewed from any position and by virtually simulating the techniques of automatic drawing, the picture becomes in its own way, autonomous. Figures in a Landscape #2 can be seen both as schematizations of figural drawing and landscape, and further, as abstractions of vision itself.

The disembodied and reclining figures in Figures in a Landscape #2 are bathed in an amorphous white light that irradiates what seems to be an aerial view of a landscape congested with human fragments. De Kooning here alludes to, but never fully articulates, this scene, for what the artist perceives and describes in paint will be, as he avers, decidedly different from what the viewer may recognize. “If I made as sphere and ask you, ‘Is it a perfect sphere?’ you would answer, ‘ How should I know?’ I could insist that it look s a perfect sphere. But if you looked at it, after a while you would say, I think it’s a bit flat over here.’ That’s what fascinates me—to make something I can never be sure of, and no one else can either. I will never know, and no one else will ever know.” Harold Rosenberg, the interlocutor in 1972, then asks, “You believe that’s the way art is?” to which de Kooning responds: “That’s the way art is” (H. Rosenberg, “Interview with Willem de Kooning (1972),” in de Kooning: Paintings, 1960-1980, Kunstmuseum Basel, Ostfildern-Ruit, 2005, p. 154).

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