METAMORPHOSIS & MODERNISM: FIVE MILESTONE WORKS BY WILLEM DE KOONING FROM THE COLLECTION OF ALLAN STONE, NEW YORK
Rare examples of the artist’s earliest forays into abstract painting, Untitled (Still Life) and Abstract, painted in 1939 and 1940, illustrate the immense influence of the European modernists upon de Kooning’s early output. Within the inventive context of the burgeoning artistic community of New York City, the boundaries between the formerly defined aesthetic movements of Surrealism and Cubism, amongst other European Post-Impressionist movements, began to soften and blur as a new generation of painters rose to prominence. Describing this remarkable moment of transition in the catalogue for de Kooning’s early career survey at the Museum of Modern Art in 1968, museum director Thomas B. Hess describes, “A tradition of Western art seemed to have ended, and with the disappearance of its imperatives there also came a sense of joyful release. The whole past suddenly was available, open to radical reinterpretation and reuse. Mondrian and Bonnard seemed more relevant than Picasso or Braque. Courbet, Monet, Seurat, Pissarro appeared as new artists. Although anything could be new: a study of myths and the unconscious, a revival of monumental scale, geometry, anarchy, even art for Art’s sake” (Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Willem de Kooning, 1968, pp. 44-45). While the aesthetic tenets of European modernism served as a crucial formal influence for the Abstract Expressionists as a whole, de Kooning found particular inspiration in the work of Picasso, Miró and Arp, inspired, in part, by his work as a WPA mural painter in the Federal Arts Project with Fernand Léger and Arshile Gorky. Indeed, the two-dimensionality, floating biomorphic forms and carefully rendered brushwork of Untitled (Still Life) is decidedly reminiscent of Study for the Williamsburg Project, 1936, the only existing study for the WPA mural the group planned to paint, but was never executed. Even in Untitled (Still Life), however, the spirit of de Kooning’s later output is detectable; describing the present work in his seminal 1983 text Abstract Expressionist Painting in America, scholar William C. Seitz remarks, “an early abstract study demonstrates the manner in which area, depth, and brushwork are used in the complex later work…Space is induced by overlapping and enhanced by the dark diagonal line (freely ruled in the manner of a sign painter) which, moving from the upper left corner toward the bottom and right of the canvas, begins a background line but ends as part of the foreground…Such an over-and-under process evolves shape, area, and color relations naturally, and heightens the foreground-background tension” (William C. Seitz, Abstract Painting in America, Cambridge 1983, p. 18). De Kooning’s gradual evolution is further manifest in Abstract; painted less than a year later, the introduction of a wiry reinforcing skeleton enacts a striking contrast with an increasingly painterly surface, the subtle variations in color a prophetic hint of the spectacular vibrancy of the artist’s later masterpieces. Further distinguishing Abstract, the painting was acquired by the present owner from the Estate of Thomas B. Hess, the same director of the Museum of Modern Art who mounted de Kooning’s seminal early career survey in 1968. In both Abstract and the earlier Untitled (Still Life), the particular tension between abstraction and figuration that is inherent to de Kooning’s work is already readily apparent in the colorful geometric and organic forms that, despite suggesting recognizable imagery, avoid clear referential meaning. Painted less than a decade later, the sublime elegance of line in Abstraction (Black and White Abstraction) marks the moment when de Kooning, breaking from the structured forms of Cubism, fully committed himself to the gestural dynamism and calligraphic lyricism that would come to define his oeuvre. A superb example of the artist’s black enamel drawings from the late 1940s to 1951, the present work emphatically illustrates the central importance of drawing to de Kooning’s practice during these years. Remarking upon the limited series, Seitz eloquently notes, “Not drawings in the traditional sense, they are instead rehearsals in paint” (Ibid., 20). In the graceful, fluid lines and sinuous curves of Abstraction (Black and White Abstraction), one can see de Kooning begin, for the first time, to exercise the full emphatic force of his prodigious talent as a draftsman. Describing the tightly cohesive series of enamel on paper drawings in the catalogue for de Kooning’s early career survey at the Museum of Modern Art in 1968, Thomas B. Hess describes, “Everything moves at uniform velocity…There is an extraordinary lucidity—and ambiguity” (Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Willem de Kooning, 1968, p. 50). The Black and White Abstraction series is powerfully evocative of the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, one of de Kooning’s closest friends; yet in their reductive purity of palette and lyrical, sinuous grace, the drawings are equally evocative of the artist’s late paintings, de Kooning’s remarkable fluidity of touch and wrist already imbuing the cascading lines with a rhythmic elegance.
Bursting forth in a dazzling eruption of painterly bravura and chromatic brilliance, Boudoir of 1950 declares the groundbreaking arrival of de Kooning’s mature abstract mode across every inch of the intimately scaled, gem-like surface. With a muscular physicality, the dark charcoal contours of Black and White Abstraction become stabilizing forces, organizing the complex array of forms and shapes within a decisive spatial structure. The earlier vocabulary of defined and static biomorphic figures has liquefied, the forms opening up and flowing together in a vigorous flurry of emphatically expressive brushwork. From within the pulsing net of flexuous lines and glowing jewel-toned pigment, de Kooning’s trademark oscillation between abstraction and figuration emerges; to the upper left, a flurry of spontaneously rendered lines resolves into the outline of a window, while at center, sensually calligraphic curves suggest the feminine contours of de Kooning’s infamous Woman of 1949. Evidencing de Kooning’s continued admiration of the European Post-Impressionists, however, the striking pictorial immediacy and spatial organization of Boudoir, alongside such monumental canvases Attic and Excavation from the same year, evokes descriptions of space in the paintings of Henri Matisse: “We are no longer required to read the figures one after the other, but merely invited to let ourselves be invaded by the polychromatic orchestration and rhythmic organization, which have to be apprehended in a single breath, so to speak, rather than gradually perceived through a painstaking build-up of details; the space of a picture is the one we actually breathe in” (Georges Duthuit, “Matisse and Byzantine Space,” Transition 49, no. 5, 1949, pp. 20-37). As the eye consumes de Kooning’s barrage of visual cues and dynamic marks, we find ourselves constantly, and enticingly, vacillating between perceiving the contours as figurative attributes and allowing the forms to break down into pure abstraction.
Fusing the suggestive forms of the artist’s earlier biomorphic abstractions with the linear elegance and automatic gesture of his subsequent masterpieces, Itinerant Chapel, from 1951, is amongst the most striking demonstrations of the daring elision of abstract and figurative imagery that defines de Kooning’s uniquely astounding contribution to 20th century art. While the radically simplified forms and open, linear network are intensely architectural, they resolutely evade outright figuration; describing another group of the black and white abstractions exhibited at Charles Egan gallery in the late 1940s, a young Art News editor observed, “His abstractions with their fierce energy are the result of months of sketching and alternation, and they reveal the new, self-contained personality…In the compositions there is constant tension as space envelops and then releases these ambiguous forms. Indeed, his subject seems to be that crucial intensity of the creative process itself, which de Kooning has translated into a new and purely pictorial idiom” (Renee Arb, “Spotlight on de Kooning,” Art News 47, April 1948, p. 33). In February of 1951, the year the present work was executed, de Kooning was invited by the Museum of Modern Art to speak at a symposium, along with several other key figures in American art; addressing the central question and title of the lecture, What Abstract Art Means to Me, de Kooning remarked, “I do not think of inside or outside—or of art in general—as a situation of comfort. Some painters, including myself…not want to ‘sit in style.’ Rather, they have found that painting—any kind of painting, any style of painting—to be painting at all, in fact—is a way of living today, a style of living, so to speak. That is where the form of it lies. It is exactly in its uselessness that it is free. Those artists do not want to conform. They only want to be inspired” (the artist, quoted from a talk delivered at the What is Abstract Art? symposium, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 5 February 1951). Painted during the crucial formative decade of his practice, the five remarkable works of the Collection of Allan Stone illustrate and define de Kooning’s remarkable progression as, declaring his independence from the preceding traditions of art history, he initiated the abstraction that would define his artistic practice for the following decades. Like vibrant landmarks, these paintings and drawings are a striking testament to de Kooning’s bold declaration in 1951 that, for the rest of his life, he would continue to push, investigate and redefine the very nature of abstract painting.
"Drawings and paintings fed off each other in the forties, until de Kooning created a new kind of painting, or perhaps a new kind of drawing, in a series of black-and-white abstractions...The blacks and whites push in front of and slip behind each other. Everything moves at a uniform velocity; the material has a consistent body. There is an extraordinary lucidity—and ambiguity. It is as if two philosophers were having a discussion about Black and White, but each property could only be cited in terms of its opposite."
Thomas B. Hess in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art (and traveling), Willem de Kooning, 1968-1969, p. 50
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