Contemporary Art

How Willem de Kooning's 'Seated Woman' Defied Expectations

By Sotheby's

B eginning in 1950, artist Willem de Kooning began painting works that centered on the female form – a radical departure from the purely Abstract Expressionist mode he had primarily been working in previously. Although this transition from the wholly abstract to the figural lost him the support of acclaimed critic Clement Greenberg, others, like Harold Rosenberg, remained steadfast in their belief in the relevance of De Kooning’s artistic trajectory. De Kooning completed his seminal “Woman” series, consisting of six paintings, between 1950 and 1953 – Woman I, the first in the series, is currently in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Seated Woman was completed in 1951, during the same span of years as this significant series, highlighting its origins in a highly specific and formative period of the artist’s career.

In Seated Woman, as opposed to several other works from the same period, De Kooning not only disrupts compositional perspective, but also the boundary between painting and drawing. In the classical tradition, drawing is largely reserved for studies or preparatory drawings, and painting is reserved for “high art.” Here, De Kooning utilizes oil paint as well as graphite and crayon to create a work where, upon first inspection, it is not immediately clear whether it is a painting or a drawing – he has seamlessly melded the two techniques. Compositionally, the fusing of mediums heightens the sense of fractured space; the sketched outline of the woman’s body does not entirely align with where appendages have been painted, resulting in a degree of dynamism and movement that could not have been achieved had he approached the subject directly. Further, the brief allusion to space by way of several haphazardly drawn floorboards does little to establish setting, signifying that the primary aim of the work is less tied to true representation than to intuitive interpretation. Through his own distinct and unique process of rupturing visual expectation by disjointing and reconstructing the human form, De Kooning achieved a degree of expressionism that was akin to the solely abstract works of his contemporaries, but without the necessity of expelling the figurative from the composition.

The women who occupy De Kooning’s work diverge greatly from traditional representations, where beauty and poise take precedence. Instead, they evoke and prioritize psychological imperatives, illustrated through both mode and motif. This approach to the subject, though, has garnered the artist a degree of criticism, namely from critics who championed total abstraction and those who viewed his portrayal of women as misogynistic. To the former, De Kooning famously quipped, “Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented.” To the later, he generally posited that although his work does not pontificate the virtues of womanhood, his subjects nevertheless maintain their dignity and agency. Seated Woman is a singular example of both the artist’s technical skill and artistic inimitability. Chronologically, it indicates a pivotal period within the artist’s career, where he moved away from then critically approved approaches to medium and subject matter, and delved into a personal, experimental trajectory in his practice, which, ultimately, led De Kooning to be considered one of the premier artists of the 20th century.

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