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Abstract Drawing

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Abstract Drawing

Artist: Willem de Kooning (American, born Netherlands, 1904 - 1997)

Date: 1951
Medium: Oil and enamel on heavy wove paper
Dimensions:
Framed: 33 x 43in. (83.8 x 109.2cm)
Overall: 24 1/4 x 30 1/2in. (61.6 x 77.5cm)
Signed: Signed lower right (black paint): de Kooning
Inscribed: Recto, lower right (black paint or ink): "de Kooning"
Credit Line: Edward W. Root Bequest
Object number: 57.128
Text Entries

Willen de Kooning’s preoccupation with black and white during the years following World War II was shared by other Abstract Expressionists. They, as well as contemporary European artists, were drawn to the reductive economy and the message-making properties inherent in this simplification of the palette.(1) The Utica drawing is one of about twenty by de Kooning from the period 1949 to 1951. In this group of works he resumes and clarifies the themes of his more abstract black-and-white paintings of the previous several years, often using the same black enamel.(2)

There is drama in de Kooning’s paint application, with its mixture of slapdash freedom and precise care. He has used visibly liquid paint with a special sign-painter’s brush, chosen for its flexibility of touch and the heavy charge of paint its long bristles can hold. The eloquent lines have been elaborated by swiping, possibly with a palette knife, to create large, dragged passages and flame-like forms.(3)

Speedy linear filaments first appeared in de Kooning’s white-on-black works about 1946, perhaps in dialogue with Gorky’s use of the liner brush. By 1948 the conversation included Pollock’s poured skeins of paint. The enamel drawings bear closest resemblance to Pollock’s black paintings of 1951.(4) Both artists present imagery that resists full comprehension and use a dazzlingly free execution that energizes the entire surface.

The image that asserts itself within the welter of de Kooning’s forms may be read as a reclining nude in the foreground of a large architectural space.(5) As such, it is part of a long tradition, from Titian to Matisse. The tiny window, tangent to the figure, creates a deep space by its abrupt diminution in scale. The diagonal lines of the receding ceiling above it ingeniously echo the window shape and the top contour of the figure, thus locking organic and geometric forms, near and far, into a taut surface design.

Among the paintings of the period, the Utica work is nearest in imagery to Warehouse Manikins of 1949 (Bagley Wright, Seattle), Yellow Boudoir of 1949 (private collection), and Woman, Wind, and Window I of 1950 (Warner Communications, Inc., New York). The female forms of the paintings, however, are more nubbly, lacking the lithe abandon evoked here. The Utica form, with its short, splayed appendages, has a surprising shape-analogue in a painting by Soutine, one of de Kooning’s favorite artists. It is the Carcass of Beef of c. 1925 (Albright-Knox Art Gallery), exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1950. Whether the likeness emerged spontaneously or intentionally, the image is one de Kooning knew well, as he also knew, through reproduction, the painting that inspired it, Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox (Louvre).(6)

Such a conflation of woman and butchered flesh startles, invoking both John Graham’s wounded ladies and Surrealist precepts of imaging one’s darkest fantasies. Also pertinent to the combination is the sense of grief and outrage at wartime atrocities, as conveyed in Picasso’s Charnel House of 1945 (Museum of Modern Art). With its intelligence and urgency, this drawing can bear such content, although the indeterminate image, by its very nature, permits other readings.

 

Notes

1. See Lawrence Alloway, “Sign and Surface: Notes on Black and White Painting in New York,” Quadrum, no. 9 (1960), pp. 49-62, 191.

2. Thomas B. Hess, Drawings of Willem de Kooning (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1972), pp. 13, 34-35. This work may have been exhibited in de Kooning’s second one-man exhibition at the Charles Egan Gallery, New York, in the spring of 1951.

3. Hess, p. 35, discusses the technique of this work, which is reproduced as plate 29. The technique for the group of drawings is also discussed by Paul Cummings, “The Drawings of Willem de Kooning,” Willem de Kooning, exhibition catalog (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1983), p. 16; and William C. Seitz, Abstract Expressionist Painting in America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 20. Within this black-and-white work are several touches of color: red in the upper left and slight amounts of orange at the far right, creating accents analogous to those in contemporaneous paintings such as Excavation of 1950 (Art Institute of Chicago). Near the center of the drawing, part of an arcing line has been edited with a cover of white paint, perhaps to encourage a reading of the large shape as a torso, certainly to eliminate the only slack form.

4. It was de Kooning who introduced Gorky to sign-painters’ brushes (Seitz, p. 17). Pollock’s poured works were first exhibited at the Betty Parsons Gallery in January of 1948. De Kooning’s enamel drawings were exhibited in April of 1951. It is possible that Pollock’s black paintings, under way by June 7, 1951, when the artist mentioned them in a letter, were a response to de Kooning’s enamel drawings (Hess, pp. 37-38). The text of the Pollock letter is given in Francis V. O’Connor and Eugene V. Thaw, Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings, and Other Works (New Haven 81 London: Yale University Press, 1978), vol. 4., p. 261, D99.

5. Hess, p. 35, sees “an empty leotard or stocking” and “a cross, acting as a window frame.” Other drawings of the group have both crosses and windows. The imagery of some of these drawings is discussed by Sally Yard, Willem de Kooning: The First Twenty-Six Years in New York (New York: Garland Press, 1986), pp. 173-75.

6. The medium, of course, is unlike Soutine’s oil impasto. For de Kooning’s comments on Soutine, see Margaret Staats and Lucas Matthiessen, “The Genetics of Art,” Quest, vol. 1, no. 1 (1977), p. 70.

 

Drawing has been essential to de Kooning’s art since his earliest works. It formed the core of his training at the Rotterdam Academy, and in later years de Kooning considered all his paintings to be “drawn with the brush.”(1)

The interchange between de Kooning’s drawing and painting is exceptionally vibrant in the series of works on paper he produced from 1949 to 1951. In these he resumed and clarified the themes of his more abstract black-and-white paintings of the previous several years, often using the same black enamel.(2) Luminously apparent on the white of its smooth support, de Kooning’s application of the enamel paint combined slapdash freedom and precise care. As in the denser paintings, he used a special sign—painter’s brush, which he knew from his experience with commercial art, selected for its flexibility of touch and the heavy charge of paint its long bristles could hold; here, though, that brush performed almost solo. The eloquent lines have been elaborated by swiping, possibly with a putty knife, to create large, dragged passages and flame-like forms.(3)

The image that asserts itself within the welter of de Kooning’s forms may be read as a reclining nude in the foreground of a large architectural space.(4) As such it is part of a long tradition, from Titian to Matisse. The tiny window, tangent to the figure, creates a deep space by its abrupt diminution in scale. The diagonal lines of the receding ceiling above it ingeniously echo the window shape and the top contour of the figure, thus locking organic and geometric forms, near and far, into a taut surface design.

While de Kooning’s drawings often serve a problem-solving, rehearsal function, this series seems instead a rich overflow during an especially fecund period. In the paintings Warehouse Manikins of 1949 (Bagley Wright, Seattle) and Woman, Wind and Window I of 1950 (private collection, New York) the female forms are nubbly, lacking the lithe abandon evoked here. In rendering this variation, de Kooning has produced a surprising shape—analogue to a painting by Chaim Soutine (1894-1943), one of his favorite artists: the short, splayed appendages recall Soutine’s Carcass of Beef of c. 1925 (Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo), exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1950. Whether the likeness emerged spontaneously or intentionally, the image is one de Kooning knew well—as he also knew, through reproduction, the painting that inspired it, Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox (Louvre, Paris).(5)

Such a conflation of woman and butchered flesh startles, invoking surrealist precepts of imaging one’s darkest fantasies. Also pertinent to the combination is the sense of grief and outrage about wartime atrocities, as Picasso conveyed in Guernica of 1937.(6) With its intelligence and urgency, this drawing can bear such content, although the indeterminate image keeps our comprehension in flux.

JW

1. Sam Hunter, “De Kooning: ‘Je dessine les yeux fermé,’” Galerie Jardin des Arts (Paris) 152 (novembre 1975): 68-70, reprinted in Marie-Anne Sichere, ed., Ecrits et propos, Willem de Kooning (Paris: Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, 1992), 151-52.

Using infrared reflectography and microscopic analysis of paint, Susan Lake and Judith Zilczer, “Painter and Draftsman,” in Willem de Kooning from the Hirshhorn Museum Collection (Washington, D.C.: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, 1993), 172-79, present an important contribution to understanding the role of drawing in de Kooning’s working methods.

2. Hess, Willem de Kooning Drawings, 13, 34-35, pl. 29. For further discussion of the enamel medium see Lake and Zilezer, “Painter and Draftsman," 177.

3. The technique of this work is discussed by Hess, Drawings of Willem de Kooning, 35; see also Paul Cummings, “The Drawings of Willem de Kooning," in Willem de Kooning (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1983), 16; and William C. Seitz, Abstract Expressionist Painting in America (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1983), 20.

4. For further discussion of the imagery in this work and related drawings see Hess, Willem de Kooning Drawings, 35; Sally Yard, Willem de Kooming: The First Twenty-Six Years in New York (New York: Garland Press, 1986), 173-75; and Judith Zilczer, “De Kooning and Urban Expressionism," from Willem de Kooning in the Hirshhorn Museum Collection, 35.

5. Yet another carcass of beef was before de Kooning’s eyes during this period in the work of his British contemporary Francis Bacon whose Painting, 1946, was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 1948. See Zilczer, “De Kooning and Urban Expressionism,” from Willem de Kooning in the Hirshhorn Museum Collection, 52.

6. De Kooning’s blending of forms and meanings is aptly conveyed in Stephen Polcari’s use of the term “portmanteau paintings." These works are related to the literary device and artistic concerns of the Abstract Expressionists in Stephen Polcari, Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience (Cambridge, Eng, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 282.

 

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Presumed copyright: the artist or the artist's representative/heir(s) / Licensed by ARS, New York, NY.