Willem de Kooning (American, born the Netherlands, 1904–1997)
Oil, cut and pasted paper on cardboard
14 3/4 x 11 5/8 in. (37.5 x 29.5 cm)
From the Collection of Thomas B. Hess, Gift of the heirs of Thomas B. Hess, 1984 (1984.613.6)
© 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
De Kooning made both figurative and abstract art at various points in his career, sometimes concurrently. Of nonfigurative work, he said, "even abstract shapes must have a likeness." In a legendary and emblematic exchange between de Kooning and the critic Clement Greenberg, the latter questioned whether a truly modern artist could justify figurative painting: "In today's world, it's impossible to paint a face." De Kooning's response: "That's right. And it's impossible not to."
Between 1950 and 1953, de Kooning made the series for which he is best known, the Women, and this painting of 1950 is a fine example of the subject. The small scale of this painting on paper belies both the potency of the iconic image and the dramatic dynamism of the vigorous, gestural brushwork. De Kooning himself summed up the impulse in 1951: "Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure. I always seem to be wrapped in the melodrama of vulgarity. I do not think of inside or outsideor art in generalas a situation of comfort." The image seems to assemble itself before our eyesa palpable testimony to the process of its creation. Akin to other Abstract Expressionists, de Kooning here rejects conventional notions of "finish" in painting. Every stroke is a visceral record of speed, energy, agitation, and tension. But the tensions are coupled with humor in equal measure. A garish woman, her hair a gaudy, flaming orange, stares out at the viewer, her oversized eyes having been incised into the wet paint with a pencil point to reinforce the effect. Her eye-like, prominent breasts stand as beacons in the very center of the sheet. Very few other body parts are as clearly delineatedinstead, much of the figure merges into its indeterminate space, a suggestive jumble of strokes and color.
De Kooning incorporates collage elements, which intensifies the jarring effect of this blend of delineated and inchoate elements. Here, a bright red mouth has been taken from a cigarette ad in a magazine and affixed to the work. In an interview of 1963, the artist described its role: "First of all I felt everything ought to have a mouth. Maybe it was like a pun, maybe it's even sexual it helped me immensely to have this real thing. I don't know why I did it with the mouth. Maybe the grinit's rather like the Mesopotamian idols." The reference is to two Sumerian statues that were on view at the Metropolitan Museum in the 1940s and '50s. De Kooning was a regular visitor to the Museum, drawing inspiration at various points in his career from diverse sources in art history, from the Roman paintings of Boscoreale to portraits by Ingres and the Le Nain brothers.