An Appreciation.

Is he a misogynist or is he not? That is the question most art critics and historians quickly come to when discussing Willem de Kooning and his 1950’s Women Series.

Let’s consider: It’s the middle of the 20th Century and painting is so alive and kicking! Who is the artist that dominates that world? Picasso. What defines the century so far? Cubism? Dada? Surrealism? Oh, and don’t forget Expressionism! All question reality – the artist’s world of illusion. All searching desperately for new ways of seeing and living in a world rapidly changing. Abstraction is the new, bold language but the king of the land never totally succumbs. Picasso adores women. He paints them. He makes love to them. They sit, stand, leap and weep before him. Some are blond, some brunette. Where are the redheads? Now there is a question if we are going to ask such questions. In NYC, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon dominates the MOMA. These ladies are beautiful, vulgar, posing, squatting, standing, preening. The painting is a crossroads, filled with too much and not totally resolved. Yet, even today, still it stops me cold every time I see it. Still seems new!

In 1950 de Kooning is finding his stride. And for him and his friends abstraction is tantamount. The act of painting fills the canvas top to bottom. Allows him to evoke, to express, to exalt…not the “subject” but the act of painting itself.  Above all, abstraction shatters illusion. The canvases explode with strokes of pure color and lyrical lines. But when he thinks of paintings that have moved him and that continue to move him, it’s often the gorgeous ladies depicted throughout history…the Madonnas, the Venuses, the Bathers, the Fertility Goddesses, the Warriors that have dominated art for centuries. De Kooning has always drawn them and painted them, too. He is not going to abandon them now.

But how can you paint these women as an abstract painter?

It’s 1950 and many women in America are bold, brassy and strong. Post WWII is a new world. And de Kooning would know, he was married to one. Elaine de Kooning was a strong painter as well and certainly had a mind all her own. He paints her and draws her standing and sitting. He pushes and pulls the image. Fills the page with her presence, her strength, her form. Light pours through the window breaking up the space into shadow, light and color. He cuts it up, scrapes it down and restates it day after day. He looks hard and also closes his eyes and works some more. He cuts up drawings, overlaps them, creates new juxtapositions of form and color and figuration. He scrambles the light and shadow patterns and warm and cool colors. The drawing is fragmented and shuffled. He is reworking Cubism, playing with Surrealism. Through this he finds his own way of visually expressing the qualities of life he savors: air, motion, flesh, humor! All as explosive and layered as any corner in Manhattan or textured and sensuous as the wind at the seaside in the Hamptons. Along the way he shatters the Ideal Women of the centuries. She no longer poses. She moves as she wishes. She does not stand still. She is beautiful and scary! She chooses her way to move in a space. Sometimes to please him and often to please herself. She is the Other. She lives in the world in a different way than he does. De Kooning enjoys this about her. He paints her small waist, her hips, her calf, her shoulder, her breast. He focuses on each sensuous part, as a man does. She leaves, reenters. He scraps out the image, covers it with newsprint, collages on top. Finds new forms from the layerings, it is a Painting as well as Woman.

The forms are bold…full of dynamic life. If too delicate a mouth or eye is painted it is lost. He attaches a photo of a mouth from a pinup calendar of the beauty of the day, Marilyn Monroe. The unexpectedness of it is broad and striking. The addition holds it own but it is out of context and appears funny, too. It grimaces, shocks us. He adds slashes of intense red pigment as painters often do to reclaim and draw attention to a dead or overworked area. This can read as an act of violence but also an artistic move. These are images full of multiple readings. They are intentionally ambiguous and layered. Their meaning is about qualities not absolutes. By 1970 the women have completely merged with the landscape. The paintings are all he loves – all sensation and form and flesh and breath and scent. They quiver and swim and bob on the sea and in the breezes of the beach.

So is de Kooning a misogynist? Would this question be asked if the women were elegant and beautiful? Could that violence some experience before his Women of the 50’s be a visualization of his battle with the ages of figuration and the search for the vision of his time in history? He does not manipulate her and simplify her into an ideal archetype. How many male artists have ever attempted to see the female so completely? He is experiencing all of her. She is Breton’s “convulsive beauty!” De Kooning has created Andre Breton’s new cry of the ideal woman described in his Surrealist novel, Nadja: “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.”

Today it is 2011 and I am living in another age of change. Woman I and Les Desmoisselles d’Avignon continue to dominate MOMA, daring me to join in this battle. I am grateful to have de Kooning in the ring with me and through him Picasso and through him Cezanne and forever back through the ages.

-Tina Tammaro




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *