"The attitude that nature is chaotic and that the artist puts order into it is a very absurd point of view, I think. All we can hope for is to put some order into ourselves" -Willem de Kooning
This striking portrait of the elongated figure of a reclining woman is a superb example of Willem de Kooning conjuring up the female figure and once belonged to the art collector and philanthropist Betty Freeman. Drawn on a monumental scale, the evocative entanglement of charcoal lines that defines the seductive curves of the body seemingly emerges effortlessly out of the surface of the paper itself. Fashioned during concentrated bursts of creative energy, these meandering lines form the contours of the body-arms and legs, hands and feet emerge out of the melee of charcoal lines. In contrast to the linear anarchy of the body, de Kooning's depiction of the face is much more considered, piercing dark eyes and fulsome lips created with the defining tip of the charcoal stick.
According to Harold Diamond, the New York art dealer who purchased Woman directly from de Kooning in 1964, the artist probably began this work during the closing months of 1963. He had just finished working on a series of smaller oils on paper and wanted to work on a somewhat larger scale and began two drawings-the present work and a second drawing which was later acquired by Joseph. H. Hirschhorn and is now in the permanent collection of the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. In a letter to Betty Freeman, who purchased this work in 1964, Diamond describes the process which de Kooning employed to produce the drawings "He fastened paper to doors, because he found their proportions so interesting" he wrote. "The drawing is the full size of the door. All the paintings and the two large drawings are variations on one theme, a woman in a rowboat, lying [sic] on her back. If you study the drawing closely, you will see the ambiguity of the woman's position, which is one of the most interesting things about the drawing" (H. Diamond in a letter to Betty Freeman, October 24, 1964).
Central to de Kooning was the deconstruction of the form to a level bordering on abstraction yet hovering within the confines of figural form. The 1960's found the artist hard at work on a second series of Women, a body of work that includes the present drawing. Dated 1964, Woman ranks as one of the artist's largest and most fluid distortions of the female figure. Built up from rapid strokes of black charcoal, the blurred yet distinct outline of hips and breasts materialize to form a disproportionate body placed squarely on two sturdy legs. A quick flourish with the charcoal suggests the presence of hair. Yet just as the form begins to emerge from the chaos of the lines, it seems to break down. It is due to this concurrent state of reconstruction and deconstruction of the body, eroticism versus monstrosity as well as the eerie assemblages of body parts that de Kooning achieves an ambiguity that not only challenged notions of femininity but also became the cornerstone of his artistic output.
De Kooning's Woman paintings and drawings are among some of the most famous depictions of the female form in the art historical canon. They were the result of his continuing exploration of the competing tenets of abstraction and figuration during which time he produced an abundant vocabulary of shapes and images derived from the contemplation of the figure. Drawing played an important role in de Kooning's conception of the figure and not surprisingly, it is within the artist's impressive body of drawings that the most diverse and radical expressions of this tumultuous image can be found. Although he was hailed as a founding father of Abstract Expressionism, de Kooning was never able to completely abandon the figure. In an interview, the artist once commented, "It is really absurd to make an image, like a human image. But then all of a sudden it becomes even more absurd not to do it" (de Kooning, quoted in D. Sylvester, "De Kooning's Women," Sunday Times Magazine, 8 December 1968, p. 57).