Painted in 1955, Willem de Kooning’s Composition I is a significant work executed during a pivotal moment in the artist’s career. Along with Jackson Pollock, de Kooning was heralded as one of the leaders of the Abstract Expressionist movement, yet he did not merely re-create his successes, instead he continued to push himself to innovate, transform, and adapt his artistic practice. Composition I serves as a snapshot into this constant striving for a new vision—in it de Kooning navigates from his bold, frenetic Woman paintings— frequently dominated by a single massive figure—to a style that more closely resembles the genre of landscape. Composition I becomes all the more important in light of its date of execution, 1955; the year it was painted also saw de Kooning paint Easter Monday, one of the most significant works of art in the artist’s oeuvre and, indeed, of the 20th century.
De Kooning’s early paintings, like those of many of the nascent artists of the New York School, showed a strong influence from the European Surrealists, who fled war-torn Europe in favor of the safety and freedom of the United States. It was in New York City that the baton was passed from the likes of Yves Tanguy and Roberto Matta to Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning. The artist’s black and white paintings, the first that brought him to prominence, were devoid of figure and instead captured the gritty, claustrophobic terror of the post-war urban experience. His sweeping, self assured gesture, already humming with psychic energy, was immediately apparent and would quickly become a hallmark of the artist’s career. From these explosive beginnings, de Kooning turned to his iconic Woman paintings in the early 1950s—fleshy, monstrous figures whose toothy smiles seem to recede in space, blurring, and warping the picture plane around them so that foreground and background are nearly indistinguishable. They disrupt the traditional art historical notion of the female form as a site of natural, transcendent beauty and instead inspire a Freudian fear, as hulking totems of base desire. But as the 1950s moved on, the forms of de Kooning’s Woman paintings become further and further abstracted, pushed deeper into the background, until they are eliminated completely. Composition I hails from the moment that this transformation is effectively completed. The work’s bold, fleshy pinks interplay with sinewy, supple blues and delicate yellows to create a dynamic, lyric painting that is at once wholly abstract and yet curiously representational. As the viewer’s eye moves across the painting, flat geometric planes intersect with biomorphic curves. Moments of frenetic, energetic brushwork give way to calm lushness. The viewer can almost make out the curves of a woman’s body, the delicate sweep of her hair—or is it an aerial view of Long Island? In Composition I, womanhood is no more a locus of fear, but of a serene calmness. Form flattens, stretches, and smears until it has reached its breaking point and a new artistic style emerges. But it is a style that harkens back not to the crassness of Dada, but to the sensuousness and virtuosity of Peter Paul Rubens or Chai¨m Soutine. It is precisely this painterly gesture and tactile surface that have become hallmarks of Abstract Expressionism. Noted de Kooning scholar Judith Zilczer agrees: “It is as if he had chosen to focus on and enlarge to monumental scale some detailed passage of his figure paintings. In this transformation of the “intimate proportions” of the woman’s body into landscape-like abstract composition, de Kooning pursued a strategy similar to that of his friend Franz Kline, who used an opaque projector to enlarge details of his own urban genre paintings into the mural-scale, black-and-white abstractions that became his signature achievement” (J. Zilczer, A Way of Living: The Art of Willem de Kooning, New York, 2014, p. 132). At its heart, Composition I is sublime and supremely painterly.
This sublimity is echoed in the masterwork from this period, Easter Monday, which de Kooning began in 1955 and completed in 1956. That this painting is a signature work of the artist’s career is evidenced by the fact that it hangs in permanent collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, mere steps away from Jackson Pollock’s masterpiece Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950. The work is fully landscape, strong, bold, and sturdy, syncopated by the same watery blues which run through Composition I. Even Easter Monday’s pace is similar to Composition I, casually revolving from the dissonant to the lyrical. It is not illogical to think that de Kooning was working out Easter Monday’s monolithic radicality in the structure of Composition I. But in its more intimate scale, Composition I reveals more of the inner workings of the artist’s process than its monumental brothers. Its sensuality and painterliness seems to carry more of a romantic sentiment, one that had echoes in the series of another groundbreaking artist—Pablo Picasso’s portraits of his lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter. It is as if de Kooning’s startling women have become tamed somewhat, and have settled back in, confidently, to the more luxurious aspects of their femininity. Composition I is a pivotal work for the artist, and highlights a change in attitude from a deep anxiety to the confidence of a master who has just begun to hit his stride.