Willem de Kooning’s early-1950s Woman paintings are touchstones of post-war art. As you might expect, Museum of Modern Art curator-at-large John Elderfield has stuffed as many Womans into his wonderful “de Kooning: A Retrospective” as he could.
Five of them line a single wall: Predictably, MoMA’s own Woman I anchors the wall from the center spot with MoMA’s Woman II installed on the far left. Also here are Woman III, loaned by a private collector, the National Gallery of Australia’s Woman V and the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Woman and Bicycle. Woman VI, the Carnegie Museum of Art painting which might be the best of the bunch, is on a nearby wall with Woman-related works on paper.
So what about Woman IV? It’s not in New York for the retrospective. Why not? [Image: de Kooning, Woman IV, 1952-53.]
Woman IV is in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. As usual, it’s in the N-A’s excellent gallery of post-war American art, the ‘first’ gallery in the museum’s Steven Holl-designed Bloch Building.
Nelson-Atkins spokesperson Kathleen Leighton confirmed that MoMA wanted the painting (which is even included in the exhibition catalogue as plate No. 93) and said that Nelson-Atkins director Julian Zugazagoitia “badly” wanted to be able to send it.
However, the museum decided that Woman IV wasn’t in good enough condition to travel. In fact, Elisabeth Batchelor, the N-A’s director of conservation and collections management told me that the painting is so delicate that the museum probably won’t move it from the wall unless it absolutely has to.
“There are two big problems,” Batchelor said. “De Kooning used charcoal to draw and scratch into the paint on our painting, so there are little chunks of charcoal lodged into and stuck into the paint surface. They could fall off. In fact, some chunks have already fallen off. The second problem is where he painted on the jute. The fiber is like a kind of burlap — it’s not linen or cotton and it’s a very cheap material. It becomes very brittle with age. Where the canvas wraps around the stretcher, one can see small slits that have started to appear. The slits could get bigger with vibration. Furthermore, this [Woman] hasn’t been lined, which, on one hand, makes it very prisitine and original. But on the other hand, yes, it’s much more vulnerable to vibration.”
De Kooning worked charcoal into many of the Woman paintings. The detail at left, from MoMA’s exhibition website, shows charcoal in the paint on Woman II. On the same site, MoMA conservator Jim Coddington details de Kooning’s technique in an audio clip. (It’s not possible to link directly to the audio/detail. Click on the fourth of the four ‘detail’ squares, just below the paintings title and year in the upper left of the page.)
Despite not having left the Nelson-Atkins since 1978, Woman IV achieved a measure of fame in 1983, when the Whitney Museum of American Art hosted the last de Kooning retrospective. While the N-A wasn’t able to send its de Kooning to that exhibition either, Woman IV was still featured on the cover of the exhibition’s catalogue.