De Kooning's perpetual desire to rethink and rework compositions is well known and was played out nowhere more obsessively than in his seminal Woman series. This complex figure, whether painted or sketched, ranks among the most inventive and haunting evocations of the female form and was even described by one critic as "a totem and icon of the times" (T. B. Hess, Willem de Kooning, New York, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, 1968, p. 12.) His momentous oil Woman I, 1950-52 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) was the culmination of two years of exploration and experimentation with the female form - two years that saw the extraordinary evolution of an abundant vocabulary of shapes and images derived from the contemplation of the figure. Drawing played an important role in de Kooning's conception of the figure, a visual forum for endless trials that were central to the creative process. Not surprisingly, it is within the artist's impressive body of drawings that the most diverse and radical expressions of this tumultuous image can be found.
Although he was hailed as a founding father of Abstract Expressionism, de Kooning was never able to completely abandon the figure. In a interview, the artist once commented, "It is really absurd to make an image, like a human image. But then all of a sudden it becomes even more absurd not to do it" (Quoted in D. Sylvester, "De Kooning's Women," Sunday Times Magazine, 8 December 1968, p. 57.) The early 1950's found the artist obsessed with depicting the figure and his momentary reversal back to figural art aroused controversy.
Central to de Kooning was the deconstruction of the form to a level bordering on abstraction yet hovering within the confines of figural form. The 1950's found the artist hard at work on a second series of Women, a body of work that includes the present drawing. Dated 1951, Woman ranks as one of the artist's most aggressive distortions of the female figure. Built up from rapid strokes of black charcoal, the blurred yet distinct outline of hips and breasts materialize to form a disproportionate body that teeters upon the characteristic spindly, almost animal-like legs. Unlike other drawings where facial features are more defined, here the outline of nose and mouth are lightly sketched by pencil, barely visible between the piercing eyes. A quick flourish with the orange pastel crayon suggests the presence of hair. Yet just as the form begins to emerge from the chaos of the lines, it seems to break down. It is due to this concurrent state of reconstruction and deconstruction of the body, eroticism versus monstrosity as well as the eerie assemblages of body parts that de Kooning achieves an ambiguity that not only challenged notions of femininity but also became the cornerstone of his artistic personality.
As in the case of the present work de Kooning used brown-tinted paper to heighten the effect of the black charcoal and the white pastel. Yet it was his manipulation of line, and the actual exercise of drawing itself that was rudimentary to the overall presentation of the image. Paul Cummings notes that of all de Kooning's single standing figures, Woman is "wrapped in a superstructure of lines. Though they often touch parts of the figure, the lines continue into space, then form a transparent network which contains the figure. Light is trapped in the deftly controlled formations. Fragments of the torso are closely studied with emphasis on the volumes" (P. Cummings, op. cit., p. 18). Volume was also enhanced through de Kooning's frequent use of an eraser, employed no more aggressively as it is in the present drawing, its tracks spreading the charcoal over the body.
Fig. 1 Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Street, Berlin, 1913, Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Fig. 2 De Kooning, Monumental Woman, 1953, sold Christie's, New York, 15 November 2000, lot 9
Fig. 3 De Kooning, Woman V, 1952-1953, Australian National Gallery, Canberra