A pioneer of Abstract Expressionism, de Kooning was singular among his generation for his recurrent dialogue with the human form. He experimented with the figure throughout his career, focusing on anatomical fragmentation and spatial ambiguity to suggest the fleeting nature of the individual. He used the figure as a point of departure for his forays into abstraction, obsessively and tentatively probing every encounter at their nexus.
De Kooning's Women paintings of the early 1950s were notorious in their near-blasphemous figural conception, but also in their monumental scale and turbulently rendered, intentionally vulgar and wildly distorted configurations. These regal and fierce women evinced an unprecedented and shockingly violent sensuality. De Kooning channeled archaic sculpture, Byzantine icons and African tribal art into his vertically encased, stiffly posed, rigidly frontal nudes, creating archetypes of a modern era. He also conversed with the Western tradition of the female nude and infiltrated "high" art sources with magazine cutouts and pin-ups gleaned from Pop culture. Speaking of his controversial Women, de Kooning stated, "The Women had to do with the female painted through all the ages, all those idols. I think it had to do with the idea of the idol, the oracle, and above all the hilariousness of it. (cited in J. Zilczer, Willem de Kooning from the Hirschorn Museum Collection, New York, 1993, p. 47). Evincing a disturbing "hilariousness" via their widely grinning mouths with fang-like teeth, these femme fatales threatened imminent castration.
Executed earlier, during the height of his engagement with the Abstract Pastoral Landscapes, Study for Clamdiggers (1961-62) reveals the artist's tremendous versatility and scope and the unrelenting draw of the figure in his oeuvre. Evolving from the fluid handling, sensuous brushwork and abundance of flesh colored pinks of works of the landscapes, the lush corporeal beings emerge tenuously, gently expanding into their painterly milieu. De Kooning's famously luxurious and textured handling doubled effortlessly into the robust voluptuousness of flesh; rosy, sun-flecked and dimpled. Possessing none of the toothy aggression, harsh distortion and brutal monumentality of the Women from the early 1950s, the figures in Study for Clamdiggers possess a seductive sensuality. While the format of two frontal nudes cut off by the edges of the canvas draw comparison with Two Women in the Country (1954), the twin blond figures of Study for Clamdiggers are youthful, playful, rounded and fleshy, embodying a luxurious idea of beauty. They signal a departure from the flat angularity and acrid colors of their predecessors.
While coaxing flesh out of oil paint, de Kooning simultaneously fused his figures irrevocably to their surroundings by melting contours and bleeding softly dappled color. Participating in the Western tradition of the nude in nature allowed him to explore figure-ground tensions that uniquely captured the dynamic co-existence of abstraction and figuration in his oeuvre. Just as quickly as figures would emerge from his landscapes, they would dissolve into them, submerging under the repertoire of de Kooning's brushwork.
Marla Prather suggests, "Because of the liquid, tractable medium and pearly, low-contrast colors, everything in Clamdiggers seems unstable, as the paint envelopes figures they seem dematerialized by light and water. (M. Prather, Ibid, p. 174). Discussing these paintings, De Kooning stated, "I try to free myself from the notion of top and bottom, left and right, from realism! Everything should float. When I go down to the water's edge on my daily bicycle ride I see the clam-diggers bending over, up to their ankles in the surf, their shadows quite unreal, as if floating. This is what gave me the idea." (cited in M. Prather, Ibid, p. 174). Reflections on water would have provided de Kooning a means of synthesizing figuration with the Post-Cubist picture plane. In Study for Clamdiggers, the blue and green strokes around the lower half of the female on the left stand for landscape and yet, seem to occur on the same plane as the figure, as if both were apprehended as the fractured shimmer on water.
Assimilating and distilling his surroundings and his achievements with the Abstract Pastoral Landscapes, de Kooning tackled the figure anew in Study for Clamdiggers. A prescient work, it heralds the artist's return to figuration in the 1960s.