Important Art by Willem de Kooning
Seated Woman evolved out of a commission for a portrait. Around this time, Elaine Fried (they were not yet married) often modeled for de Kooning (one can see a resemblance of her, in the auburn-colored hair). The woman, wearing a low-cut yellow dress, sits on a chair with one leg crossed over the other. One arm rests in her open lap while the other seems to bend up toward her face, although there is no hand attached to it. As curator John Elderfield points out, all of her body parts, which seem more like shapes, float around her body, not quite connected to one another. De Kooning wrote in the early 1950s, "With intimate proportions I mean the familiarity you have when you look at somebody's big toe when close to it, or a crease in a hand or a nose - or lips or a ty [thigh]. The drawing those parts make are interchangeable one for the other and become so many spots of paint or brushstrokes." Given the struggles de Kooning had with painting certain body parts, it makes sense that he would reduce them to so many shapes, flipping, rotating, and using them in various contexts.
One can also see de Kooning's artistic influences on display in this painting. The fractured form of the figure certainly recalls Picasso, but Arshile Gorky's The Artist and his Mother (c.1926-c.1942), with all of its erasures and seemingly unfinished state, is also evident. The background of oranges, greens, and blues has been scraped down many times, creating a smooth, almost jewel-like surface. The planes of color hint at a Cubist space but also Mondrian's Neo-Plastic paintings. The squares also suggest the artist's studio walls, with various canvases tacked and piled against the wall. Coming on the heels of a series of paintings of seated men, Seated Woman (c.1940) can be seen as a companion piece and was de Kooning's first major painting of a woman, a subject to which he would continuously return over the decades.
In Pink Angels, pink- and coral-colored, biomorphic shapes float above and meld with a background of mustard yellows and golds, and the painting marks an important stage in de Kooning's evolution from figuration to abstraction in the later 1940s. The fleshy pink shapes evoke eyes and other anatomical forms that have been torn apart or are in the process of colliding. Certainly the carnage of World War II would not have been far from his mind, but curator John Elderfield has also pointed out connections to Picasso's Guernica as well as Miró, Matisse, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Importantly, de Kooning resisted disguising the process of the painting's making. Throughout the composition, charcoal lines outline the pink forms and intersect the golden areas. One sees an eye, perhaps part of a fish head, in the bottom left corner, and a circle and rectangle in the bottom center next to a crab-like form in the bottom right. De Kooning would often draw shapes onto paper and then trace them onto the canvas. As Elderfield describes, "He was continuing to use tracings to position and reposition drawn shapes beside and above each other on the canvas as he worked, a technique that indubitably helps to account for the complex layering and sudden, shifting dissonances that animate the work's surface." While most of the Abstract Expressionists denied that they made sketches for their paintings and instead worked spontaneously, de Kooning created a method that allowed for fluid construction and reconstruction of his compositions, leaving them still with an aura of spontaneity.
De Kooning was already forty-four years old when he had his first solo exhibition at the Charlie Egan Gallery in the spring of 1948. Most of the paintings in the exhibition resembled Untitled - compositions painted in black and white, with vaguely recognizable shapes and complex plays of figure and ground. The show was little noticed in the press, but it jolted the artists of the downtown scene - old timers and newcomers alike. With the reduction of the color palette to stark black and white, de Kooning's play with surface and depth are amplified and unstable, creating a dynamic composition that threatens to break apart.
While one might observe a haunch or a penis, there is also something calligraphic about the white lines de Kooning draws on the surface, and one is reminded that he was a sign painter at one point in time. There was much interest in the time among the Abstract Expressionists about symbols and ideographs and how paintings might communicate a universal human emotion or experience. De Kooning's friend Harold Rosenberg described these paintings, calling them "symbolist abstraction dissociated from their sources in nature[;] organic shapes are carriers of emotional charges in the same category as numbers, mathematical signs, letters of the alphabet; the memory of a friend may be aroused by a pair of gloves or a telephone number, an erotic memory by a curved line or an initial." And, indeed, the shapes and signs enact a sort of mysterious drama that seems to be constantly shifting, making the viewer constantly adjust and see anew.