Willem de Kooning’s next great series of Woman paintings started in late 1950. That October, MoMA presented a major retrospective of Chaim Soutine, the Belarusian-French painter who loaded up his brush with oil paint as if canvas was an enemy that must be smothered.
As I argued yesterday, by the time de Kooning saw the Soutine show he was already in the throes of full-field compositions — he had finished or was almost finished with Excavation and he had established his all-over mastery via Asheville (1948), Attic (1949) and Painting (1949-50).
Art historians have oft noted that de Kooning was fascinated by MoMA’s Soutine show. In Woman (1948) and a related set of paintings, de Kooning measured himself up against Matisse and Picasso. Apparently he felt he did pretty well, because after seeing Soutine, de Kooning took his next big leap.
De Kooning seems to have been particularly taken with the landscapes Soutine painted around the French town of Ceret, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. In many of those paintings — about 200 in all — Soutine used a wet, loaded brush to slather the surrounding trees, hills and homes in such a way that they filled every inch of his canvases. This seems to have given de Kooning faith that he was on the right track. After Soutine, de Kooning’s paint becomes wetter and looser, bigger, lusher and braver. He learned that distorting elements in a painting could create dramatic new effects.
That trick, plus Soutine’s paintings of cow carcasses and hanging fowl that seem to push up against the picture plane, gave de Kooning new ideas. In 1950, de Kooning’s paintings of women grew bigger. He discarded the chairs in which he had previously put women and spread out ogresses across canvases. In order to achieve the full-field reach that he’d been pursuing for much of the previous decade, de Kooning linked their figures to the edges of the canvases not with sunbursts or the arms of chairs, but with simple and increasingly abstract brushstrokes. In Woman I (1950-52), de Kooning extends his figure’s left shoulder to the edge of the canvas with a few determined, flesh-colored-giving-way-to-grey brushstrokes. For Woman VI, the best painting in this batch, de Kooning binds the figure to the perimeter with brisk patches of pink and green. The suburst of the 1948 Woman has been stripped down to a yellow-and-grey triangle which reaches its point just below the upper-left of the painting.
As great as the towering, five-and-six-foot-tall early 1950s Woman paintings are (six are in the exhibition, only the Nelson-Atkins’ Woman IV is absent), they’re almost over-shadowed by a wall of Woman-related works on paper that stare them down from across the gallery. As I noted in part one, curator John Elderfield has smartly included de Kooning’s drawings and sketches throughout his exhibition. They’re almost-all fantastic, a strong argument for a de Kooning works-on-paper show. The best may be Two Women with Still Life (1952, above right) from MOCA’s collection. Smaller than two-feet-square and installed across from MoMA’s Woman I, it somehow overshadows de Kooning’s most famous painting. (The drawing may be a study for this painting, on view now at the preposterously de Kooning-rich Hirshhorn.)
De Kooning’s final great series of women came over 10 years later, after a decade in which de Kooning made a tremendous series of colorful abstractions. The 1960s paintings of women mark a return to Soutine after a decade away. This time de Kooning seems to have been particularly fascinated by Soutine’s paintings of splayed carcasses. The women in these paintings, which Elderfield has installed in a remarkable single gallery that is so intense that you practically want to bathe on your way out, are spread and available. The paint is wet, heavy and languidly flicked into space by broad, rounded brushstrokes.
Scholars have oft tied these paintings to how pornography took a more graphic, open turn in the early 1960s and that the emergent Penthouse-style of presentation may have motivated de Kooning’s later women, such as Woman (1964-65, at left) and Woman, Sag Harbor (1963). Even if I think there’s more Soutine (and late Picasso) here than Guccione, it’s easy to understand that reading: In both of those paintings, the women fill, completely fill, the top seven-eights of the painting, breasts here, the vavoom of womanly hips there. The figures are tied to the edges of the canvas with a couple of quick swipes of the brush. However this time the women are often not tethered to the bottom of the field. It’s almost as if there’s room for the viewer, as if the women are inviting us to jump on in. They are lubricious.
In the late 1960s de Kooning painted his last women. (The last ones at MoMA are from 1969, though there are figurative elements in later works.) For the last 25 years of his life he made sculpture and painted large abstractions. He never again approached the greatness he achieved in his figurative paintings.