The years immediately following World War II were a crucial time in the development of the art of Willem de Kooning. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, he, along with friends such as Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock had experimented with a fusion of cubist structure and surrealist automatism. After the War, however, he had established his own style, and his own vocabulary of forms, colors, materials, subject matter and, most importantly, his own method of painting. He simultaneously created two great and successful series of works: a group of black and white abstractions, including such masterpieces as Painting, 1948 (The Museum of Modern Art) and Attic, 1949 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman Collection); and an equally impressive group of figures, most notably Woman, 1948 (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden), Woman, 1949-1950 (Weatherspoon Art Gallery) and the present Woman, 1949. These two series are recognized as the first masterpieces of his distinguished career.
The abstractions were exhibited in de Kooning's first one-man show in New York at the Charles Egan Gallery in 1948. The reviews were very positive, and at least one work was purchased by a museum: Painting, 1948, bought by the Museum of Modern Art. While the abstractions were very much "of the moment"--their bold, gestural style setting the tone for an entire generation of followers--the introduction of the figure by one of the leading members of the avant-garde was even more daring when Woman, 1949 was shown at the Sidney Janis Gallery in a 1950 exhibition organized by Leo Castelli, Young Painters of the U.S. and France. Although never exhibiting them, de Kooning had always painted figurative works and felt no compulsion to abandon it for pure abstraction. '"Even abstract shapes must have a likeness," de Kooning once said' (Hess, p. 47, op cit). He hated the strictures of modernist movements, their reductive tendencies and their polemics. In retrospect, it is easy to see how such a pluralist point of view could have created two seemingly disparate bodies of work at the same time. De Kooning never thought of the two approaches as separate, and, indeed, they shared similarities of execution in the curving brushstrokes, forms and richly textured surfaces.
Two great themes have pre-occupied de Kooning throughout his long career: the Woman and the Landscape. While his landscapes are powerful, with their sweeping gestures and an expansive use of space, it is de Kooning's Women that have long been recognized as one of the most influential and dramatic treatments of this theme in Western art. Like Picasso's tormented Weeping Women of the late 1930s (seen by de Kooning at The Museum of Modern Art's Picasso retrospective of 1939), Georg Grosz's prostitutes or Jean Dubuffet's Corps de Dames, de Kooning's Women shock us as they violate the very dearly held concept of Woman as wife, mother, '[the] all-American girl of the cigarette ads and the monstrous dark goddess; primitive idol and superficial chattering cutie; the Venus of Western art, the trucker's pin-up girl, the loving whore and child-eating mother, eros and death, life and animal sexuality, dreamlike vision and everyday street life, the real and the magic, fear and longings," all appear in these images (J. Merkert, "Stylelessness as Principle: The Painting of Willem de Kooning," in Willem de Kooning: Drawings, Paintings, Sculpture, New York 1983, p. 125).
In Woman, 1949, the figure is placed centrally, seated like a Renaissance Madonna at a slight angle to our left. The blue rectangle of the upper right reinforces the notion of a window, a classic Renaissance device to proclaim the illusion of depth and space. De Kooning's space doesn't recede with aerial perspective; rather, it proclaims a type of cubist space of overlapping planes. But unlike Picasso's cubism of flat planes hovering on the surface of the picture, de Kooning's line carves out the space, warping and bending planes, recombining elements of the figure to create a complex interweaving of space.
The main elements of the painting are the fruits of de Kooning's researches and experiments in the 1940s, when he built up a repertoire of shapes that are at once abstract and representational. He used these shapes in a technique that was similar to collage. While a painting was in progress, he would often draw the changes he wanted to make on paper, and place the drawing over the painting so that he could contemplate the change. If he liked the change, he would usually remove the paper, scrape down the old surface and paint the new additions directly on the canvas. The fragments of the paint left after the scraping added to the ambiguity of the forms and the richness of the surface of the canvas, and contributed to the feeling that the painting evolved all at once in a furious outpouring of creative energy. Frequently, forms that were fully absorbed into de Kooning's repertoire would appear in new combinations in different paintings. The overall composition of Pink Lady of 1944 is revisited in Woman; the abstract forms and palette of Bill Lee's Delight seem to have a correspondence with the top half of Woman, 1949, painted five years later. There is no hierarchy in the use of abstract or figural elements to create a powerful composition. Their recombination to create Woman show de Kooning's deep subconscious understanding of his subject, which preoccupied the artist for his entire career.
Woman, 1949 is almost feral in the aggressiveness of her portrayal, a caricature of the sexy woman of advertising. With bared teeth revealed in a frightening grimace of a smile, hands on fleshy hips, she assesses herself with smug, haughty satisfaction in a misty mirror. Fiery orange-red hair hangs over her shoulders; yellow stockings encase her legs. Her corpulent white body is carved by bold, slashing black brushstrokes which define her heavy, pendulent breasts and her swelling belly. She is self-absorbed and vain in an almost comic way; her sexuality is scary, fraught with Freudian undertones.
In Woman, 1949, de Kooning established the standard for the gestural painters who followed: 'in its restlessness, claustrophobia, density, rawness, violence and ambiguity, de Kooning's painting of the 1940s and 1950s felt like a walk down a Manhattan street' (I. Sandler, "Abstract Expressionism: The Noise of Traffic on the Way to Walden Pond," C. M. Joachimedes & N. Rosenthal, op. cit, p. 83).
De Kooning created three early series of Women: in the first dating from 1938-1945, painted in acidly expressive colors, the figure becomes more fragmented; by the second series (1947-1949), culminating with Woman, 1949, de Kooning pushes fragmentation and expressive painting to the extreme and the figure boldly asserts her sexuality and heats up the landscape she dominates; and in the third series (1950-1955) with thickly applied paint and scrambled surface effects, the figure overwhelms the canvas and exists alone.
While de Kooning never abandoned women as his subject matter, returning to paint them from time to time, they never matched the ferocity of his colorful, richly executed, impassioned sexual goddesses of the late 1940s and early 1950s.