Updated: Apr 20, 2020
Willem de Kooning was a Dutch-American artist who was a member of a generation of artists, initially led by abstract expressionists, who helped develop the idea of “American Art.” Art in America prior to the 1940’s was largely just a variety of show of copyists going along with whatever trend the popular European artists were following. But in a post World War II America fueled by patriotism and progression, artists started to develop their own identities and, thusly, an American art that wasn’t just European art done in America. Willem de Kooning was one of those artists who helped develop that idea, most notably with his Woman series which was done primarily in the 50’s and pushed the boundaries of color, shape, form and painting in general. But, like all artists, there were early stages of experimentation and pieces that reflected his references and inspirations far more than his later works. That’s what I’d like to discuss today, a precursor to the Woman series titled Seated Woman done around 1940.
de Kooning’s work prior to the series was mostly abstract still life that seemed to combine a style of Picasso-like cubism and abstract expressionism. Again, his references and inspirations were clear. He would later stray away from this and more definitively create his own style, but I think this piece is a fascinating middle ground in that progression. 95% of this piece feels very Picasso-esque; the way he handles the body shapes, bold color, line work mixed into shape. This piece screams cubism and in a way that seems to reference Picasso heavily, but there’s one massive separating factor that both fascinates and terrifies me about this piece: the face.
From what I can gather, de Kooning was never much for representational work but this face feels as if it was done completely normally, void of abstraction and then he took his thumb or hand and smeared it downward. This smear erases definition of the face, flattens it, and takes away all of the emotion. When your eyes pan from the body to the face, or vise versa, it feels like you’re moving between two totally separate paintings. The haunting thing about the face, aside from gut wrenching melancholy in its expression, is that it alters the abstraction. This piece, to me, no longer feels like an expressive character done totally in the thoughts of the artist, but instead it feels like a mutilated human who’s been contorted and mangled before having all emotion and definition wiped from their face. It doesn’t feel like de Kooning is displaying his own perception of the human form, but instead mangling and contorting it until he finds what he likes.
I love seeing artists work prior to finding their niche, or that one series that really defines their career. I think it’s so easy to become stagnant and lose progression once you gain a little success for one thing in particular, especially when it comes to levels of abstraction. So a piece like this, knowing de Kooning’s later work, feels like a total experiment. It looks like he just mashed different artists’ styles together to try and find his own method, but in this work he hasn’t quite figured out how to make the references seamless so you instead get this Frankenstein-like painting that’s mashing different painter's styles together. Personally, I’m not a fan of de Kooning’s later work, but this painting fascinates me.