Willem de Kooning’s Woman is a vivacious example from one of the most radical bodies of work in the Western Post-War art historical canon. Obsessively worked during intense periods of creativity between 1952-1953, this painting is a force of nature; a voluptuous and contorted figure executed in the artist’s vibrant color palette and with the flourish of his peripatetic hand. De Kooning’s distinctive interpretations are arguably the most striking portrayals of the female figure since Pablo Picasso’s 1907 masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Thus, his Woman paintings stand alongside some of the most iconic works of art of the past one hundred years: other examples from this pivotal period in de Kooning’s career include Woman I, 1950-1952 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), Woman with Bicycle, 1952-1953 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) and Two Women in the Country, 1954 (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.). Woman has been featured in several major exhibitions of the artist’s work; shortly after it was painted, it was selected to be among a small number of paintings exhibited in the American Pavilion at the XXVII Venice Biennale. Later, in 1994-1995, it was included in a major exhibition of the artist’s work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Tate Gallery in London—the only major exhibiton to be devoted entirely to de Kooning’s painterly practice.
In the present painting, a Rubenesque woman fills the picture plane. Rendered with an exuberant and energetic hand, her frontal form dually distorts, and is a distortion in space. De Kooning flattened his subject, truncated her form with an abridged head and calves, broke her into a slippage of constituent geometric pieces—the large elliptical belly, the jagged arms and opulent breasts. Woman is composed of vigorous, gestural strokes that range from translucent to opaque, thin to thick, and sensual to turbulent. These strokes alternate between control and release in an aesthetic tactic imbued with psychological content. The complexity of de Kooning’s paintings lies not only in the application of paint, but also in the construction of the images that he explored. In his essay for the 1994-1995 retrospective, curator Richard Shiff highlighted the present work as a superlative example of the visual humor inherent in some of the artist’s best work: “…Woman of 1952-53,” he wrote, “is among the most abbreviated of de Kooning’s female anatomies. Her flattened form, with tapering truncated legs, and barely articulated arms relates to many of the artist’s drawings and recalls the compact form of Cycladic figures. In this work…large black nipples double as auxiliary eyes, a visual pun which de Kooning played out in several drawings” (R. Shiff, quoted in Willem de Kooning: Paintings, exh. cat., National Gallery Art, Washington, D.C., 1994, p. 130).
De Kooning’s Woman paintings stunned and shocked at the time of their exhibition—indeed, New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl described Woman I as “the most controversial painting ever made in America" (P. Schjeldahl, “Shifting Picture: A de Kooning retrospective,” New Yorker, 26 September 2011, p. 123). In the Tate’s scholarly guide to its seminal painting retrospective, the present work’s place in this trajectory of controversial paintings was explored. In 1953, these paintings of women formed de Kooning’s third solo exhibition. They attracted considerable attention and the critical debate they gave rise to still continues.
I can’t get away from the woman. Wherever I look, I find her"
The principle charge was one of misogyny—these were images of women as evil, threatening, ugly. A secondary charge was that de Kooning had abandoned the pure ideal of abstract art for a return to the messy reality of human flesh. In response de Kooning suggested they represented the feminine part of himself (the anima, in Jungian terms) and remarked that the faces were often self-portraits. One possible view today is to see them as great celebrations in which an artist found new ways of embodying in paint the complexities of man’s feelings for women. As has frequently been pointed out they take their place in a line of images of women as goddess or idol, whether savage or benevolent, which goes back to Cycladic figures, Sumerian idols, and even more ancient Paleolithic fertility figures such as the Venus of Willendorf. Woman [the present work] has echoes of all of these” (Entry from the room guide to the 1995 Tate exhibition, Willem de Kooning: Paintings).
Ironically, de Kooning’s historic Woman paintings almost never came to light. In what has been described as “the world’s luckiest studio visit,” the art historian Meyer Schapiro asked de Kooning to retrieve a painting that the artist had abandoned—ripping the canvas off the stretcher and then tossing it aside in frustration—after eighteen months of arduous work (P. Schjeldahl, “Shifting Picture: A de Kooning retrospective,” The New Yorker, 26 September 2011, p. 123). That painting was Woman I. Schapiro “convinced a dejected de Kooning that his Woman I was not the failure de Kooning supposed, but the basis of a form which ultimately became de Kooning’s mature style”; today, the masterpiece decks the halls of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (L. Sorensen (ed.), “Meyer Schapiro,” Dictionary of Art Historians, www.dictionaryofarthistorians.com). The present painting was created during this incredibly exhilarating period as de Kooning continued to investigate the idea of women and femininity, both in the artist’s personal experience and in the context of a wider world.
De Kooning’s Woman is an exceptional example of one of the most important and influential series of paintings in the 20th century artistic canon. Across its rich painterly surface, the artist adds his own unique contribution to depictions of the female figure that has engaged artists for millennia. Having been included in one of the most important exhibitions of the artist’s work, this painting has been recognized by scholars for its significant contribution to the history of figurative painting as its fluid, abstracted lines proved so groundbreaking at the time of its creation and has ensured its art historical significance today. Within Woman’s voluptuous curves de Kooning offers a unique, very modern, fast-paced, twentieth century vision of the female as both power and sensation.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).