"He has gone too far, but that is the only place to go" -Sidney Geist, 1953
In 1950 Willem de Kooning began work on a canvas that would take him over two long years of painterly struggle and psychological torment to complete. Bearing the solitary, and at the time controversial, image of a figure in the form of a large, erotic but overbearing woman, it was a work that he would repeatedly paint, erase and rework time and again, even at one point throwing it away only to later pick it up once more and begin anew. Never really completed, but ultimately left by the artist in a final, definitively unresolved state, this work, Woman I, now in New York's Museum of Modern Art, was the first in an extraordinarily radical, unorthodox and groundbreaking series of paintings on the theme of the 'Woman' that de Kooning made in the early 1950s. Collectively responsible for redefining and re-shaping the direction of much contemporary painting since the post-war period, these now famous paintings are the most enduringly fascinating, influential and highly regarded of all de Kooning's works.
Painted in 1953, Woman (Blue Eyes) is one of this epic series of Woman paintings that poured forth from de Kooning's brush soon after Woman I and continued until around 1955 when the figure of the 'Woman' slowly dissolved into more peaceful-looking landscapes and abstractions. An intense explosion of painterly color and gestural line seemingly coalescing on a collaged paper surface to magically suggest the presence of an indomitable if also highly sexual and even wanton female, this painting is one of the finest of a group of medium-scale paintings, drawings and pastels that de Kooning made throughout 1953. These works which were made directly following the five large oil paintings Woman I - 5 of 1952-3 that de Kooning exhibited at the Sidney Janis Gallery exhibition Paintings on the Theme of the Woman in March 1953 are in the main a more distinct, cohesively structured and clearly resolved series of depictions of the great archetypal female that so dominated the artist's work at this time.
Like a work such as Woman, 1953 (now in the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C.), Woman (Blue Eyes) is one of the more dynamic, energetic and exploratory examples. It is a painting more closely related in many ways to the looser splash and pull and vigorous freeform struggle of the large oils than that of the tighter, more structured and controlled works that distinguish de Kooning's later renditions. Painted in the immediate aftermath of de Kooning's Janis Gallery exhibition, Woman (Blue Eyes) is one of a group of Woman paintings that de Kooning sold privately to the gallerist Martha Jackson in order to raise money and pay the fare for an upcoming visit from his mother in Holland. All these pictures were subsequently shown together in the exhibition Recent Oils that Martha Jackson held at her gallery in 1955. Woman (Blue Eyes) however, which Jackson had, by the time of the exhibition, already sold to Seymour H. Knox, was subsequently included in the catalogue for this show but not displayed. As part of Knox's collection it was later to form a part of the Albright-Knox Gallery collection in Buffalo.
The dynamic, powerful and ultimately troubling image of Woman that suddenly erupted into de Kooning's formerly abstract-looking work in the early 1950s did so at a time when the artist had seemingly reached a highpoint in both his art and his career. With his recent black-and-white abstractions and the creation of his vast, ambitious and indisputable masterpiece Excavation of 1950, de Kooning had, after years of search, finally arrived at a lyrical, freeform way of working that both liberated his undeniable talents and displayed them for all to see. For the very first time in his life de Kooning had begun to garner the recognition he had long deserved and now appeared to have taken his place alongside Jackson Pollock as his generation's leading exponent of abstraction.
Despite its appearance however, de Kooning's work had never really left the figure. Even at his most abstract, de Kooning's painting maintained what the critic Clement Greenberg himself once identified as a profound sense of contour, or linear reference to the body. The fluid, slipping forms of de Kooning's black-and-white abstractions all carry a certain sense of biology and his great 'abstract' masterpiece Excavation is clearly, as indeed its title suggests, riddled with figurative forms that have seemingly been partially excavated from the rich, undulating, painterly surface of the canvas. Despite the controversy that would come to surround de Kooning's apparent re-embracing of the figure in the Woman paintings that directly followed this work, there was no real break in the creative flow of de Kooning's painterly activity at this time. While painting Excavation de Kooning had become fascinated with Mesopotamian figures--figures that themselves had been excavated from the distant past--as well as with other deities such as that of 'a Mexican goddess to whom hearts were sacrificed' and more secular and contemporary goddesses to be found in modern mass culture. These included smiling girls from cigarette adverts, fashion models, pinup girls and movie stars such as Marilyn Monroe whose calendar adorned the wall of de Kooning's studio at this time.
Largely oblivious as to whether these imposing female figures were ancient or contemporary, de Kooning drew on the distinct frontality and centeredness he found in such idols--part of what he defined as a distinctly Occidental tradition--with the aim of using this 'Western' quality as a kind of compositional conceit by which to anchor his otherwise floating freeform painting. Woman (Blue Eyes) for example, shares the same strong frontal pose, powerful verticality and fixed wide-eyed gaze of many of these idols while in contrast, the streaks of de Kooning's paint appear to emulate smeared make-up and the radiant patterning of red, yellow and blue across her giant breasts suggests a bathing costume. Taken together, all these features establish this totemic figure as a timeless form seemingly both ancient and modern.
Although controversial amongst critics such as Greenberg at this time for seeming to revert to an outworn tradition just when the New York School abstraction looked to be opening the door to new horizons, de Kooning's Woman paintings in fact marked another important step forward. They were a move beyond the whole distinction between what is figurative or abstract. As de Kooning often took pains to point out, his so-called 're-introduction of the figure' as a 'subject' was merely an adoption of the woman motif as an armature or centralized structure that would enable him to continue to paint with an even greater freedom.
"Certain artist and critics attacked me for painting the Women," de Kooning recalled, "but I felt that this was their problem, not mine. I don't really feel like a non-objective painter at all. Today, some artists feel they have to go back to the figure, and that the word 'figure' becomes such a ridiculous omen - if you pick up some paint with your brush and make somebody's nose with it, theoretically or philosophically. It's really absurd to make an image, like a human image, with paint, today, when you think about it, since we have this problem of doing it or not doing it. But then all of a sudden it was even absurd not to do it" (W. de Kooning, 'Content is a Glimpse' excerpts from an interview with David Sylvester broadcast December, 30, 1960 quoted in Thomas B. Hess, Willem De Kooning, exh. cat, New York, 1968, pp. 148-9). The Woman paintings, de Kooning continued, "had to do with the female painted through all the ages, all those idols. And maybe I was stuck to a certain extent, that I couldn't go on and it did one thing for me: it eliminated composition, arrangement, relationships, line, color and form - because that was the thing I wanted to get hold of. I put it in the center of the canvas because there was no reason to put a bit on the side. So I thought that I might as well stick to the idea that its got two eyes, a nose, a mouth and neck..." (Ibid).
In practice however, the process of using the woman as a mere structure for his newly developed, 'slipping glimpse' style of painting was not to prove as simple as de Kooning hoped. The haunting archetypal power of the female image and the emotional resonance it had for him personally kept asserting itself while he worked, interacting with the application of his paint and interfering with his original aims and intentions. "I always started out with the idea of a young person, a beautiful woman," he said, but "I noticed them change. Somebody would step out--a middle-aged woman. I didn't mean to make them such monsters" (W. de Kooning, quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swan, De Kooning: An American Master, New York 2005, p. 311).
De Kooning's attempt to paint a young goddess in these works evidently also invoked an entire world of imagery and association in the artist's mind. As Woman (Blue Eyes) illustrates, images of women both ancient and modern do coalesce in these flowing, gestural semi-abstract paintings. Fleeting glimpses of ancient goddesses from Mesopotamia fuse with those of 1950s Hollywood idols. The women of Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Hals seem to collide with pictures of Madame Matisse, Madame Cézanne and the female subjects of Chaim Soutine, whose retrospective at the MoMA in October 1950 had left a strong impression on de Kooning. All of de Kooning's many earlier portraits of women too, along with those of Arshile Gorky, Pablo Picasso or John Graham that had inspired them, seem to become resolved in such works, clashing with fleeting, momentary glimpses born from memories of his wife Elaine, of his domineering mother in Rotterdam and an entire host of other powerful, sexual, funny and frightening female figures.
"The woman became compulsive in the sense of not being able to get hold of it" de Kooning remembered (W. de Kooning, 'Interview with David Sylvester', op cit, p. 49). The struggle that de Kooning had with these paintings was one that reflected both the assault on his will by the constantly shifting image he was attempting to trap with his paint and also his own attack on the resonating power of the image itself. As de Kooning's friend Thomas B. Hess said of the Woman paintings, they are essentially 'noble battlefields' in which the artist fought with a demonic and internalized image of woman, willing the creation of a beautiful young goddess but struggling with compulsive feelings within that exposed an inner psychological conflict. The iconic image of Woman that underpins such paintings as Woman (Blue Eyes) effectively signified an eruption, what de Kooning's biographers Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan have described as the opening of "a Pandora's box that not only liberated the demons of one man, but also released many essential issues that would bedevil art and culture during the last half of the twentieth century. At the heart of the anxiety of the painting(s) was the fear that something shockingly unexpected might fly out. A woman, a picture, art itself, might explode into the unexpected or embarrassing" (M. Stevens and A. Swan, De Kooning: An American Master New York 2005, pp. 338-90). Like Pollock's furious splattering and drips, the conflict expressed in these works was one that ultimately came to be both revealed and obscured through the artist's continuous push and pull of the paint on the canvas. It was a struggle that made it hard, if not impossible to arrive at a successful, cohesive and completely resolved, concrete image. Woman (Blue Eyes) is, in this respect, a paradoxical attempt to create an image through an assault on the image.
Using gestural painterly streaks, smears and sensual sweeps of the brush to both accentuate and obliterate its subject-matter, an extraordinary blend of lust and sexual desire as well as of repulsion, violence and anger is both invoked and expelled in the Woman paintings. Seeming to trap all these disparate elements within his paint as it cuts and slices around the figure, the often startling resultant imagery of his work betrays a potent mixture of aggression and desire. As many of these paintings show, this is a mix comparable in its distortive violence only to some of the portraits of murderous sexual attacks on women and female figure made by German artists in the 1920s or also perhaps, to the cruel violent and sensual painterly distortions that Francis Bacon dished out on his own subjects not long after de Kooning's Woman pictures were painted.
Conveyed solely by the vigor and dynamic material energy with which de Kooning's magnificently skilled use of paint often appears to burst away from, undermine or even assault its underlying idol-like structure, and combined with his own habitualized, near-comic-book bows to representational imagery--in the form of the woman's eyes, teeth and outsize breasts--the overall result in a painting such as Woman (Blue Eyes) is the creation of a fascinatingly unstable image. Existing on a unique borderline between abstraction and figuration, it is an image that appears to be caught magically in a state between coming into being and disintegrating. Both fleeting and dynamic and appearing to shift constantly between the suggestions of ancient idols and the glamour goddesses of mass culture, between the gaze and smiles of flirtatious young girls and the grimaces of aging harpies, between an image of woman as devourer and woman as victim, it is an image that finally asserts itself as what Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan have described as an imposing "mistress of the monstrous visual flux of the modern" (M. Stevens and A. Swan, De Kooning: An American Master, New York 2005, p. 340). De Kooning's Woman exists, Sidney Geist wrote, in 1953, "in the vast area between something scratched on the wall of a cave and something scratched on the wall of a urinal. In a gesture that parallels the sexual act, [de Kooning] has vented himself with violence on the canvas which is the body of this woman. He has gone too far, but that is the only place to go" (S. Geist, 'Work in Progress,' Art Digest, April 1, 1953, p. 15).
It is this radical feature of de Kooning's Woman paintings, this 'going too far' that most distinguishes these works and which has ultimately proved their most enduring legacy. As Woman (Blue Eyes) demonstrates, it was the daringly raw, unresolved, and incomplete, nature of these works, the blatant openness of the painterly process here left with all its gestural action, corrections, moments of indecision, inspiration, hesitation and genius laid bare and, like the figure itself, revealed permanently unfinished in an apparently suspended state of animation that not only made these works so fascinating, dynamic and alive but which has also proved most important about them.
For it was this aspect of de Kooning's Woman paintings that first introduced the idea of heroic failure into modern painting and the notion that it was the artist's struggle and the form that the process that this struggle took towards the creation of an image and not necessarily its successful resolution that mattered most. It is the distinctly post-war notion that such a transient, imperfect, fluid, undefined and ultimately unresolved image might in fact be a truer reflection of the nature of contemporary modern existence than any fixed, completed, idealized or fully resolved image ever could be that is, for the first time, asserted in these extraordinary, historic and enduring masterpieces.
"In the end I failed" de Kooning said, "but it didn't bother me because I'd in the end give it up, and I felt it was really an accomplishment. I took the attitude that I was going to succeed and I also knew this was an illusion. I was never interested, you know, how to make a good painting. For many years I was not interested in making a good painting, you know, like you could say: now this is a really good painting or a perfect work. I didn't want to pin it down at all. I was interested in that before, but I found it was not in my nature I worked not with the idea of perfection but to see how far one could go" (W. de Kooning, 'Interview with David Sylvester,' March, 1960, reproduced in David Sylvester Interviews with American Artists, London, 2001, p. 52).