By 1950 the stage was finally set for the full emergence of Abstract Expressionism--de Kooning and his contemporaries had arrived at their mature styles. De Kooning--along with Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Mark Rothko--had by this time garnered immense public recognition. Executed in the same year as Willem de Kooning's first definitive masterpiece Excavation (The Art Institute of Chicago), Woman, Wind, and Window is a stunning work that merges the most striking elements of the artist's compositions from the 1950s with the robust expressive quality and coloration of his forthcoming--and most celebrated--Woman series. Along with undisputed masterpieces like Attic (The Metropolitan Museum of Art), and Excavation, Woman, Wind, and Window is one of only a several paintings from 1950 that built on the startling developments of the black-and-white paintings of 1948 to form the culmination of de Kooning's first, almost completely abstract style. Immediately prior to his later more overt (and controversial) reintroduction of the figure in his Women series of 1950, these paintings mark the apotheosis of nearly twenty years development.
"I'm not interested in 'abstracting' or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line or color," de Kooning said around 1950. "I paint this way because I can keep putting more and more things in--drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space," de Kooning once stated (W. de Kooning, quoted in R. Shiff, Between Sense and de Kooning, London, 2011, p. 88). In Woman, Wind, and Window the central form is no doubt a figure, and an intact one, a single, nearly contained mass; but while it is no longer broken into fragments, as in so many of de Kooning's works of these years, it is abstracted and resists anatomical sense. Each contour and detail could be exchanged with another part of a woman's anatomy. Are those breasts or eyes? Is that a mouth or are those legs? De Kooning embraced this kind of ambiguity as the "intimate proportions" of anatomy: "the feeling of familiarity you have when you look at somebody's big toe when close to it, or at a crease in a hand or a nose or lips or a necktie" (W. de Kooning, quoted in J. Elderfield, de Kooning: A Retrospective, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011, p. 228).
"I asked [de Kooning] whether he thought of his Women as primarily figurative or abstract," Recalled Irving Sandler, "He bridled the question. 'They are images of women. If I wanted to paint abstractly, I would have'" (I. Sandler quoted in ibid., p. 88). Though probably referring to the great Woman series begun in the same year, it is hard to deny that Woman, Wind, Window--with its ever so specific title--would have been regarded any differently by its creator. Furthermore, when questioned about the importance of establishing a representational theme for his painting, he replied: "The very fact that it had a word connected with it--'figure of a woman'--made it more precise. Perhaps I am more of a novelist than a poet; I don't know; but I always like the world in painting" (W. de Kooning, quoted in R. Shiff, Between Sense and de Kooning, London, 2011, p. 72). It is through the title of his painting, that de Kooning planted a seed from which the composition could grow.
Reflecting on paintings from the late 1940s--like Fire Island or Ashville (The Philips Collection)-which more closely resemble Woman, Wind, and Window, we realize that in these abstractions de Kooning has assembled a lexicon of numerous shapes easily identified with the female figure. As Richard Shiff has pointed out, "Just as his representations of women were loose enough to impress viewers as abstract art, his nominal abstractions were figurative enough to suggest they derived from representation" (ibid., 88). Indeed, with the help of the title, Woman, Wind, and Window emerges as a certain, dark interior scene--that is to say a cross between Breughel's hellish creatures, Matisse's Large Reclining Nude and de Kooning's characteristic windswept brushwork.
In order to attain this new, pure and open-ended approach to painting de Kooning had adopted a novel semi-automatic approach to the way in which he constructed his paintings. It had essentially been the Surrealists' introduction of automatism and chance in their work that had inspired many artists of the New York School to elevate the process of painting to the level of its subject matter, content or style in the first place. In particular Miró's transformation of the objects of life into ambiguous and evocative signs had played a major role in the development of both de Kooning and his close friend and mentor, Arshile Gorky's distorting of forms. Now, refuting the use of abstraction towards the essentially mystical end of transcendence, de Kooning drew on the spontaneity of automatism and on chance configurations as a way of generating paintings that conveyed, through the viscosity of their own medium, the vitality and immediacy of tangible corporeal life. De Kooning achieved this remarkable feat primarily through a conscious and premeditated disruption of his own lyrical and masterly ability with line.
Like many artists, de Kooning was suspicious of his own mastery fearing the ease with which such aptitude could slip into a style that would be mannered, tired, or stale. To keep his eye sharp and his hand fresh, in his paintings of the late 1940s and early '50s, he developed a technique of painting from multiple drawings layered over one another. The layering of these often torn or fragmentary drawings created collage-like configurations in which the original meaning and integrity of the single image was lost amidst a strange conglomerate whole that teemed with a fascinating and spontaneously created vitality. De Kooning would then paint from these forms, holding up new drawings against the canvas, often turning them round and painting over both surfaces until their startling configurations seemed to somehow hold or maintain some kind of struggling balance within the framework of the painted whole.
Here, the woman is clearly the host for the transplanted central figure in Black and White Abstraction (The Collection of Jasper Johns) from 1950-51. But where is she derived from? Is she a derivative of the reclining figure in D (The Solinger Collection) of 1946, a cruel mutation of Carole Lombard (Cincinnati Museum of Art) of 1947, or a complete original? Therein lies the genius of de Kooning. Each instantiation of the figure could be a result of tracing or transferring from another work, an isolated reduction of a more complete form, or it may also emerge from de Kooning's store of motor memory. Shiff explains, "Dissimilars begin to look like similar, even the same; anything can be anything else" (ibid., 91).
This ambiguous and almost otherworldly flow of form is emphasized by the clarity of the window-like motif that appears in the top left of the painting. It is a compositional feature that appears in several of de Kooning's works of this period (from Pink Angles (The Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation) to Zot (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) or the Women series) and one that metaphorically seems to set up the possibility of alternate space or an alternate reality existing beyond the picture. Its appearance in de Kooning's paintings seems to be an acknowledgment by the artist of the 'glimpses' of alternate reality his pictures provide as well as a clear indication of the enjoyment that de Kooning took in his compositions--reveling in the paradoxes that they created.