“Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented,” de Kooning once remarked. Such was his passion for using that medium to portray the figure. The remark is one of the most widely-quoted statements by the artist, but it does not take into account the crucial role that drawing – and in particular sketches of the female figure – played in helping the artist to achieve the greatness of the better-known and instantly-recognizable “Woman” oil paintings. Art historian Diane Waldman described de Kooning’s Woman figure as “not portraits
of a particular subject, but emblems of the female form. They are demimondaine and matriarch rolled into one.” (D. Waldman, De Kooning: The Women: Works on Paper 1947-1954, New York, 1995, p. 2). By the early ‘50s, the artist had returned to figuration after a period during which he painted abstract canvases. He was achieving a new-found freedom during this time, a freedom that came to characterize his work throughout the 1950s, as he pursued an expanded range of strategies, using his extraordinary draftsmanship to test ideas and push forward a figurative language replete with a complex and nuanced vocabulary of abstract terms, so evident in this sketch, Untitled (Woman), from 1951.
The sketch, torn from a spiral-bound sketch pad, approximately the dimensions of an everyday sheet of printer paper, shows us de
Kooning’s exceptional ability to develop an image of a figure from a set of abstract pencil marks: ovals, parabolas, arcs, inverted Vs, angles, jots, perhaps erasures. The graphite marks are sometimes so light as to be only faintly discernible, while others were heavily inscribed, forming shadows or dark contours. It’s a drawing of a figure, certainly, but it’s also a document that demonstrates how the artist went about his work. “De Kooning’s forays into drawing often complemented the experiments he undertook in his painting…Beginning in the late 40s, his drawings took on many of the characteristics of his contemporaneous paintings. Often brutal, sometimes lyrical, his drawings are replete with the frenzied brushstrokes that characterize his canvases.” (D. Waldman, De Kooning: The Women: Works on Paper 1947-1954, New York, 1995, p. 4).
In 1951, when the present drawing was made, de Kooning was in the midst of painting the canvas that would define his career, Woman I. But it was drawings, watercolors, collages and other works on paper that were the crucial testing ground for the ideas that would reach their fruition in that masterpiece. Curator Paul Cummings considered the artist’s early 1950s works on paper as
a turning point, a breakthrough toward nothing less than a “new graphic language,” “the artist’s sensate and conceptual response
to the figure.” He declared the sketches of this period to be “(a)mong the most complex of mid-twentieth-century drawings.” (P. Cummings, J. Merkert, and C. Stoullig, Willlem de Kooning: Drawings, Paintings, Sculpture, Munich and New York, 1984, pp. 17-18). For this reason, they are not only remarkable pieces within this particular artist’s career; they are remarkable accomplishments within the tradition of Modernism.