Gardner Cowles, New York (acquired from the above in 1955)
Stephen Mazoh, New York (acquired from the above in 1973)
Allan Stone Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1973
Abstraction offers its viewer an archaeological survey of the creative strata that accumulated to form de Kooning’s extraordinary aesthetic, and narrates the sweeping arc of his painterly practice at this critical juncture in his career. Through the layers it is evident that the ground was laid in with intensely luminous blocks of red, blue, yellow and green, like a kaleidoscopic cubist collage, before an overall cohesion was introduced through sweeping strokes of earthen ochers and highly graphic flecks of shiny blacks. In turn this composition was succeeded by the broad swathes of creamy whites that define the central shapes, the forms of which were given partial explication via inky black incisions and emphatic flourishes of tertiary pinks. Indeed, the fluidity of enamel paint was perfectly suited to the lyrical and cadenced rhythm of his wrist, and the sinuous black lines that dripped from his brush provide both the scaffolding and the movement for this composition. Throughout this virtuoso display of innovation, de Kooning never veers from the central concern of creating an abstract language rooted in the semiotic implication of figurative motifs, resulting in landscapes, limbs and eyes all approaching resolution, though remaining just beyond easy recognition. In sum the result is a spectacularly vigorous and vibrant painting that powerfully conveys the artist's indebtedness to inherited precedents such as Cubism and Surrealism, while also firmly establishing him as a leading painter of gestural abstractions.
The contextual chronology surrounding the present work’s creation spans momentous events in the New York art world and in de Kooning’s life and his work. The late 1940s was a culmination of creative ferment in post-war New York and de Kooning was at the center of an artistic community that changed the course of Modern Art. Together with Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, de Kooning's 1940s paintings catapulted the burgeoning school of Abstract Expressionism to the forefront of the art world. In April 1948 de Kooning’s first one-man show opened at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York. In preparation for the show, Egan had written to Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the inaugural director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, appraising de Kooning in the following terms: “The inner critique of this man is of a rare kind and in my opinion, he is creating the most important paintings of our time.” Following the exhibition, which consisted mostly of black and white gestural abstractions, the critic Renée Arb noted in her review, "there is a constant tension as space envelops and then releases these ambiguous forms. Indeed, his subject seems to be the crucial intensity of the creative process itself, which de Kooning has translated into a new and purely pictorial medium." (Renée Arb, "Spotlight on de Kooning," Art News, 47 April 1948) As later attested by his wife Elaine, de Kooning considered this assessment of his art as prophetic, and it is certainly deeply prescient of the serene Abstraction. This was also a time of increasing recognition for the artist: in October, the Museum of Modern Art purchased the predominantly black and viscerally rhythmic Painting, 1948, and in November Mailbox, 1948, was selected for the Whitney Annual. This second painting, though smaller than the present work, closely shares with Abstraction a certain pale palette, fluid lyricism and the disjointed contrast between gracefully arcing forms and an underlying architectonic structure imbued with vibrant hue.
Abstraction also bears close parity to the indescribably sophisticated Asheville, which was acquired by The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., in 1952. Elaine de Kooning recalled that he spent the entire summer of 1948 on this one painting, during the period that he was teaching at Black Mountain College, near Asheville in North Carolina. His preceding cycle of black and white paintings had been largely composed by de Kooning cutting up figural drawings and reordering the fragments into abstract compositions. However, with keynote works such as Asheville and the aptly titled Abstraction from the present collection, the artist advanced his language of abstraction into color.
Through the entire period of the late 1940s and early 1950s de Kooning never abandoned the figure as inspiration and constant reference point, and the human form would merge into and out of de Kooning’s abstract work throughout his long and fruitful career. While de Kooning’s earlier Women paintings of the early 1940s had disappeared into his energetic collaging of abstract forms in works such as Painting and Asheville in 1948, de Kooning’s vehement and ardent female muse would come crashing to the fore again with Woman I (1950-52), emblematic of his second series of Women that began to emerge in 1948. The evolution of figurative and abstract dialects thus coexisted: while Woman, 1948 carries a black and white abstraction on its reverse, other abstract canvases have figure studies on the back. Hence the advancement of de Kooning’s inimitable abstract dialect during this period and the genesis of the present work are inextricably linked to the Women series. Following the prototype of Asheville of the previous year, the abstract compositions he developed during subsequent months came to be dominated by shades of whites rather than the blacks that had been so prevalent. By the Spring of 1949, de Kooning realized the monumental masterpiece Attic, today housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At almost seven feet wide, this herculean canvas was clearly a self-conscious bid for a consummately heroic artwork. Despite affording an all-encompassing impression of deconstructed form, the composition contains multiple, overlapping and variegated figural motifs, in ways akin to the essential dichotomy at the heart of Abstraction.
Abstraction was also executed shortly after the first major post-war showing of Picasso's paintings in New York at the Kootz gallery in 1947, and strong formal comparison may be drawn between Abstraction and masterpieces by Picasso such as Woman Crying with a Handkerchief of 1937. De Kooning was reluctant to be affiliated solely with the New York school of Action Painters or to define Abstract Expressionist painting as a school; however, he insisted on his respect for Cubism: "of all movements I like Cubism most. It had that wonderful unsure atmosphere of reflection – a poetic frame where something could be possible, where an artist could practice intuition. It didn't want to get rid of what went before. Instead it added something to it. The parts I can appreciate in other movements came out of Cubism." (Willem de Kooning in The Museum of Modern Art Bulletin, 18, no. 3, Spring 1951, p. 7) In the winter of 1934 Pablo Picasso famously wrote: “There is no abstract art. One must always begin with something. Afterwards one can remove all semblance of reality; there is no longer any danger as the idea of the object has left an indelible imprint. It is the object which aroused the artist, stimulated his ideas and set off his emotions. These ideas and emotions will be imprisoned in his work for good.” (Richard Friedenthal, Letters of the great artists – from Blake to Pollock, London, 1963, pp. 256 - 57) In spite of this statement, however, it is perhaps ironic that among his many phenomenal achievements, Picasso’s art always remained fundamentally figurative, and that a fuller manifestation of this 1934 statement finally reached an undeniable zenith through the art of Willem de Kooning and his astonishing paintings such as Abstraction.