Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
Property from the Collection of Emilie S. Kilgore
Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)

Woman in the Garden I

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
Woman in the Garden I
signed 'de Kooning' (lower left)
oil on paper mounted on canvas
42 x 29 7/8 in. (106.7 x 75.9 cm.)
Painted in 1967.
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner, 1980
Willem de Kooning from the Hirshhorn Museum Collection, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 1993, p. 98, no. 36 (installation view illustrated).
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., de Kooning: Paintings and Drawings Since 1963, November-December 1967, p. 60 (illustrated).
Paris, M. Knoedler & Co., de Kooning: Peintures Récentes, June 1968, no. 9.
University of California, Berkeley, Powerhouse Gallery, Willem de Kooning: Recent Work, August-September 1969.

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Rachael White
Rachael White

Lot Essay

Willem de Kooning’s Woman in the Garden I hails from one of the artist’s most important periods and extends his engagement with the subject matter most closely associated with his work: that of the female figure. De Kooning's flowing brushstrokes depict a seated woman, with legs elegantly crossed at knee, hips rotated, and torso all gracefully wrapped together in one subtle, human form. The artist presents us with a figure that is both embraced and embracing, absorbed and projected, assuredly held within the confident, virtuous brushwork and thick, impassioned gestural applications of color. The present work is offered from the personal collection of Emilie S. Kilgore, one of the most significant figures in the artist’s life during the 1970s. The pair met late in the artist’s life and their relationship breathed new life into his work; thus, Woman in the Garden I acts a particularly intimate memento from this significant period of his life.
The present work displays the increasing sensuality and liquidity of loose and bold brushstrokes that are found in his very best works. The works of the 1960s place the figure as integrated within a landscape—blurring the distinction between the two. The spirit of interconnectedness and ambiguity is reiterated time and time again in the pigment-laden brushstrokes of the painting. His move from New York to Springs, Long Island in 1963 introduced a whole new ‘openness’ to the artist’s compositions, and a well-received retrospective of his paintings in 1968 (organized by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and traveling to institutions in London, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles), had lifted the artist’s spirits, resulting in a new sense of potency in his paintings.
This period is undeniably important in other ways too: in August 1970, de Kooning met Emilie Kilgore at a dinner party in Bridgehampton, Long Island. Kilgore was summering on Long Island having had recently been uprooted from Manhattan for Houston with her husband and family. For the rest of that summer—and in the years following—de Kooning and Kilgore would become close, spending time in his studio, over lunches, and taking day-trips into Manhattan to dine with friends, see exhibitions, and attend ballet and theatre. For the periods when she was in Houston, the two would send letters to one another: “between 1970 and 1979, when he began to have difficulty writing, de Kooning sent Mimi seventy-five long and impassioned love letters—an extraordinary outpouring of feeling” (M. Stevens and A. Swan, Willem de Kooning: an American Master, New York, NY, 2004, p. 540). Their relationship deepened over the decade, growing impassioned: “[De Kooning] showered Kilgore with extravagant statements, such as ‘I dedicate all of my paintings to you.’ In the spring of 1971, he sent her a painting in Houston” (Ibid. p. 550)
For de Kooning, the 1960s were also abundant with innovation and exploration not only in his subject matter but also with the materials he used in the studio. By the time the artist would paint Woman in the Garden I, he had developed expertise in introducing new and various media in his oil paints, producing significant results by including water (providing a unique volume and viscosity to the paint), safflower oil (significantly extending drying time, and thus, malleability and working time), and large amounts of white paint (producing high degrees of luminosity). These three changes to his working method would allow de Kooning to develop compositions with a new dimensionality rarely seen in his previous works within his oeuvre—and unlike any others seen alongside his contemporaries. As with other works of the 1960s, Woman in the Garden I is heavily impastoed and passionately colored, the final composition of this work was undoubtedly built upon prior states of the image which were meditated on and manipulated by the muscular scraping and vigorous brushing that has become characteristic of de Kooning’s mid-career work.
In the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, critic Harold Rosenberg had declared that paintings would be “an arena in which to act… what was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event” (H. Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters”, ArtNews, (December 1952), p. 22). It was thereby prescribed that the action of painting—the event—would replace or supersede any substantial observation, representation, or outside life presented by the painter in the visual frame of the artwork. And yet, as we see with de Kooning’s work across decades—and with Woman in the Garden I specifically—there existed a meaningful resistance to both trend and classification, distinguishing his work from a generation of his peers and distancing his decisions from outside opinion or consensus. Woman in the Garden I 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 of women 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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