Art critic and curator David Sylvester wrote of Willem de Kooning’s figural paintings from the 1970s, “The incandescence in these products of ripe wisdom and second childhood, of this marvelous marriage of experience and innocence, is not only an incandescence of matter but often of erotic feeling…These paintings are crystallizations of the experience and amazement of having body and mind dissolve into another who is all delight” (D. Sylvester, About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-1996, London, 2001, p. 349-50). Numbering among these praised works is de Kooning’s Woman, 1974, an effervescent painting that celebrates the erotic joys of living in a body.
In the present work, swaths of expressionistically and sensuously applied paint in fleshy, dulcet tones—orange and pink hues tint white paint to a pale blush—give rise to a human figure. The particularly fluid quality of the paint stems from de Kooning’s mature tendency to thin oil paint with water and safflower oil. The patches of paint are complemented by darker, more “whiplash” strokes, which direct the form into gloriously twisting, bulging planes that call to mind the voluptuous nudes (and particularly the bathers) populating masterworks by Tintoretto and Rubens. The picture plane is flattened to unify foreground with background, and nude figure with natural backdrop. While earlier in de Kooning’s career, the artist flattened his women to a point of compression or claustrophobia, the subject of this late work is joyful and serene.
De Kooning worked in the space between abstraction and figuration, or allowed the two to flow into one another. His nonobjective works seem to reference the human body in their arcs and rhythms, and his figural works slip into abstract lines and forms. “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 more absurd not to do it,” the artist explained (W. de Kooning in conversation with D. Sylvester, “Content is a Glimpse,” March 1960, www.dekooning.org).The female form was of course a pictorial obsession for de Kooning. “I can’t get away from Woman. Wherever I look, I find her,” he famously said (W. de Kooning quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swan, De Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2005, p. 475). The artist’s Woman I, 1950-1952, an expressionistic, aggressive and harshly colored portrayal of a feminine icon, has been canonized as one of the most important works of the New York School. Beginning in the late 1960s, however, de Kooning’s Women became gentle and content, their forms loosely delineated the same fluid lines that would come to characterize the artist’s abstract work of the 1980s.
Stylistic shifts in de Kooning’s work were linked to his relocation from fast-paced New York City to East Hampton in 1963. The artist, who had previously spent summers in the rural area, liked the region’s light and water, which reminded him of his native Holland. The shimmering, fluid surfaces of his mature paintings with their gently curving lines reflect his new peaceful environment, where he drew inspiration from the way fisherman gazed into the glassy water; the reflections of clam diggers as they bent down in the surf; and the sunbathers that dotted the long beaches. Woman reflects the tranquility that de Kooning found in East Hampton and in his old age as it abstractly conveys a nude at utter peace with her natural surroundings and herself.