Bursting with color and movement, de Kooning’s Seated Woman is a prime example of what art historian Stephen Polcari calls “flesh without figuration,” a theme that de Kooning turned to again and again in 1975 (Stephen Polcari, Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience, Cambridge 1991, p. 296). After having exhausted the physical form through sculpture in the early 1970s, de Kooning returned to painting full-time in 1975 with renewed energy, synthesizing his favored motifs of the female form and the East Hampton landscape.
The title recalls his famed Woman series of the 1950s, but now the woman is far less ferocious. She is more idealized than menacing and she presents a lesson in looking: the longer one looks, the more one can find: lines and colors join and recombine to reveal elusive forms. Within a single stroke, the paint transforms into a recognizable shape before returning to the abstracted brushstroke once again. De Kooning famously claimed that “flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented,” and that belief is visible in every stroke in Seated Woman (the artist quoted in “The Renaissance and Order,” talk delivered at Studio 35, 8th Street, New York, Autumn 1949).
Seated Woman is of more domestic scale than the series of monumental paintings de Kooning presented at Fourcade, Droll Gallery later that year and possess an airier, more personal quality. The present work explores the forms of color unburdened by the weight of those paintings’ heavily impastoed surfaces like Untitled XI (1975) which today is in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. The composition balances precariously upon a swath of sea green and sunny yellow bursting upwards and outwards in tendrils of deep blue and red. Portions of the white paper are left unpainted, evoking the bright light of East Hampton that so entranced de Kooning. The lines the artist traced onto the paper before he began painting, typical of his paintings during this period, can still be seen, peeking through the paint or boldly left uncovered, perhaps indicating a change in artistic direction mid-way.
In the early 1970s de Kooning focused primarily on sculpture and an experiment with lithography following a trip to Japan in 1969 with his dealer, Xavier Fourcade. This led temporarily to a flatter, more open, and less painterly approach that can be seen in the Seated Woman. 1975 was an important year for the artist, marking the time he turned away from sculpture and lithography towards more abstract painting inspired by his natural surroundings. He felt refreshed and hopeful going into this next period of his work. “I made those paintings one after another, no trouble at all,” he later said. “I couldn’t miss...It’s like a man at a gambling table [who] feels that he can’t lose. But when he walks away with all the dough, he knows he can’t do that again. Because then it gets self-conscious. I wasn’t self-conscious. I just did it” (the artist quoted in Marla Prather, Willem de Kooning Paintings, Washington D.C. 1994, p. 197).
During this period, de Kooning was naming most of his paintings “Untitled” (typically followed by a Roman numeral) with a few exceptions, such as the monumental Whose Name Was Writ in Water (1975). Titling the present work with more than just a number is thus notable, and the title itself, Seated Woman, immediately and intentionally recalls his earlier Woman series. De Kooning had been painting for fifty years now, and his mantra was “you have to change to stay the same” (the artist quoted in Karen Painter and Thomas Crow, Eds., Thoughts and Composers at Work, Los Angeles 2006, p. 39). Seated Woman follows the theme of the female body de Kooning painted throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but it contains overtones that never blend into a discrete human form.
Ralph Ubl, in describing the sensually abstract paintings of the mid-1970s, said that “a flesh tone moves imperceptibly toward a skin tone, or changes to a garish red, a luminescent white, or a dirty violet; it can encrust, run away, or be smoothed out, going through one metamorphosis after another, repeatedly recreating and dispersing, erasing and compacting the flesh of the painting without any body emerging with which we might want to empathize. Whereas when viewing the picture close up we may be able to internally reconstruct one gesture or another, and thus feel a kinesthetic empathy, when seen from a medium distance the painting emerges as a segmented, monstrous mixed body that intrigues us more than it attracts us, fascinating or disgusting us rather than inciting our empathy” (Ralph Ubl, De Kooning Paintings: 1960-1980, Basel 2005, pp. 95-96).
Presenting an abstract work and calling it “woman” challenges the viewer’s perception of what the female form could be. Offered from the private collection of a discerning collector, Seated Woman is a fascinating example of a critical transitional period in de Kooning’s oeuvre, a time of incredible productivity in which he explored the nuances of color and the possibilities of flesh without figuration.
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