A key figure of the Abstract Expressionist movement, Willem de Kooning altered the historic progression of painting with his gestural vigor and chromatic ingenuity, expanding the visual lexicon of Western abstraction in the mid-20th century. In Seated Woman
, executed in 1951, de Kooning depicts his most iconic subject matter, the female nude. Echoing the multi-perspectival logic of cubism and the dynamism of Futurism, the painting’s complex intersection of flattened planes and emboldened black lines deconstruct the naturalistic rendering of the female body, thus dissolving the figure-ground distinction and articulating a raw, unmediated human essence. Furthermore, Seated Woman
showcases de Kooning’s unrivaled ability at combining the
expressive, two-dimensional practices of painting and drawing.
De Kooning’s Seated Woman
marks a critical point in the artist’s oeuvre, one in which he returns to ‘the figure.’ Regarding his decision to paint women, the artist remarked, “Certain artists attacked me for painting the Women
, but I felt that this was their problem not mine. I don’t really feel like a nonobjective painter at all. Today some artists feel they have to go back to the figure, and that word ‘figure’ becomes such a ridiculous omen – if you pick up some paint with your brush and make somebody’s nose with it, this is rather ridiculous when you think of it, theoretically or philosophically. It’s really absurd to make an image, like a human image, with paint, today, when you think about it, since we have this problem of doing or not doing it. But then all of a sudden it was even more absurd not to do it. So I fear that I have to follow my desires” (artist statement from his solo exhibition at Sidney Janis Gallery, in March 1953, as quoted in Diane Waldman, Willem de Kooning
, New York 1988, p. 79). Viewed in this light, de Kooning’s Seated Woman
can be interpreted as elegantly resolving dialectical oppositions of abstraction and figuration as well as tradition and innovation.
Bursting with unbridled energy and evoking a beauty that is both gracious and unsettling, de Kooning’s Seated Woman exemplifies the artist’s mastery of line, color and form. Although works from the artist’s Woman series, such as the present work, attract feminist critiques for its male-centered projections of female sexuality, this work captures the “women who [in the 1950s] were dominated by men but who were, nonetheless, quite capable of exercising control over the men who dominated them” (ibid., p. 98). Seated Woman thus functions as a complex aesthetic, social and political visual mapping of the female body. The contrasting qualities of vulnerability and self-assertion that dominate the painting’s potent, fragmented surface make this clear.