De Kooning's extremely rare sculptural work (an oeuvre that numbers only sixteen separate sculptures in total) has often been hailed as making a unique contribution to the history of sculpture in the Twentieth century. Standing Figure is one of the three monumental sculptures that de Kooning had made in the 1980s from small-scale models of what he considered to be his three most successful sculptures. A cast of each of these monumental works was subsequently set in the grounds around the artist's studio in East Hampton, Long Island, New York in 1984.
De Kooning first began to make sculpture while on a visit to Rome in 1969. There his friend, the American sculptor Herzl Emmanuel gave de Kooning some clay to work with. De Kooning made a number of small-scale figures that deliberately seem to explore the boundaries between the material limits of the clay and the physical limits of the human figure. De Kooning cast these works in bronze at Emmanuel's foundry. Merging the malleability of clay with the solid formal properties of the human figure in a way that echoes the fluid gestural sweep of his painting, the small sculptures were a strange hybrid of figurative and abstract form. Each lay particular emphasis on the physical act of modeling and on the notion of material being infused with the energy of life in a way that is almost primordial. "In some ways clay is even better than oil," de Kooning enthusiastically explained. "You can work and work on a painting but you can't start over again with the canvas like it was before you put that first stroke down. And sometimes, in the end, it's no good, no matter what you do. But with clay, I cover it with a wet cloth and come back down to it the next morning and if I don't like what I did, or changed my mind, I can break it down and start over. It's always fresh." (De Kooning quoted in Willem De Kooning : Sculpture exh. cat. Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, 1996, p. 34.)
Running against the current vogue of construction and assemblage using modern industrial materials and the Minimalist aesthetic, the sculptures that de Kooning had made were at first widely regarded as bizarre anomalies that held little relevance to the contemporary world. His thirteen small sculptures were seen however by Henry Moore who recognized in them qualities that he believed would be best served by enlargement. Moore's encouragement and enthusiasm persuaded de Kooning to experiment with working on a larger scale. De Kooning selected the work Seated Woman to be enlarged but after experimenting with a process of allowing others to magnify his work from the dimension of the smaller casts he began to attempt to work directly on a larger scale himself. In order to replicate the thumb-prints and the sensual modeling by hand de Kooning took to wearing outsize gloves. In 1980 de Kooning set to work with the Tallix Foundry in Peeskill, New York in the creation of the three sculptures he wished to cast on a large scale. These were the 1969 sculptures, Untitled nos. 2, 4, and 12, to which he now gave the titles Standing Figure, Reclining Figure and Seated Woman. Each of these works was cast in two sizes, a mid-size roughly equivalent to the size of the larger works he had had cast at the Modern Art Foundry in Rome in 1969 and a new 'monumental' size.
The effect of recasting these highly tactile and sensual material sculptures on a giant scale relates these works to the human body in a wholly different way. As Standing Figure clearly demonstrates, the powerful sense of modeling, of the clay being pushed and pulled and pressurized into shape and of the body stretching into new and unfamiliar forms remains ever-present despite the change in scale. The difference is that this innately human sense of making, of manipulating forming and even straining the material is now present on a giant scale that seems to invoke the powerful creative forces of nature. Situated, appropriately, in the landscape, it appears, in a work like Standing Figure, that this giant, obscure but distinctly human form has been forged into being by an elemental rather than a human force, its large, body-enveloping forms symptomatic of the abundant spirit of humanity materialized on an epic scale.
Willem de Kooning, Seated Figure, c. 1968 c 2004 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society, New York
Willem de Kooning, Woman on the Dune, 1967 c 2004 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society, New York
Willem de Kooning working on a sculpture, 1972, photograph by Hans Namuth c 1991 Hans Namuth Estate, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona