The pioneering Dutch-American abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning (1906-1978), produced a prolific body of work over the course of his seven-decade career. The latest exhibition at the Matthew Marks Gallery in Chelsea comprises thirty-two works, primarily, his drawings with the inclusion of several small-scale sculptural pieces.
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Willem de Kooning is known for his abstractions characterized by biomorphic shapes and intense color — his drawings from the 1930s and early 1940s especially exemplify the tension between abstraction and figuration that defined this artist’s oeuvre, first in his portraits of men, then in his even more notable depictions of the female form.
WHAT: Willem De Kooning Drawings
WHEN: Through June 26, 2021, Tue.—Sat. from 10 a.m.- 6 p.m
WHERE: Matthew Marks Gallery, 526 West 22nd Street & Online
He is also noted for his portrayals of his contemporaries and personal friends. One of such portraits, a drawing from 1938 titled Portrait of a Man, depicts Harold Rosenberg, a prominent art critic and one of the foremost champions of de Kooning’s art. In the piece, de Kooning captures the candid and observant character of Mr. Rosenberg, seen wearing a derby hat that exposes his large ears; his right eyebrow more arched and defined than his left. De Kooning has said about his friend, “Harold knows the art scene, what is going on. He has a generous way of looking at things.”
De Kooning’s work with the male figure includes a self-portrait titled Study for Glazier (1940, graphite on paper). The drawing is a very faint one as if de Kooning wanted to emphasize only certain elements. Clearly visible to the viewer is the side of the portrait’s face as he looks out into the distance and his muscular shoulder and arm.
One of de Kooning’s female figure depictions that stands out is Reclining Nude (c. 1938, graphite on paper), a drawing of accomplished dancer and model Juliet Browner, who was also famous for being Man Ray’s muse and, later, his wife. The work shows the model lying on the floor with the curves and contours of her body gracefully defined as she poses with one leg on top of her other, which is bent and outstretched. Her facial expression is rather solemn, with her gaze downcast.
Many years after de Kooning completed this portrait, Browner described her experience as his sitter, saying, “He would take a long time to finish a drawing. He would think a lot. It took him more than a week to draw my eyes. He wanted to draw them in the style of Leonardo, showing the outside of the eye as the inside.”
In 1963 de Kooning moved from Manhattan to the Springs area in East Hampton, popular with abstract expressionists of that era. During one of his regular bike trips to Louse Point, he noticed a woman in a rowboat—the image that instantly captivated him. De Kooning’s friends noted that the encounter “obsessed the artist more than any other of the moment.”
Woman in a Rowboat (c. 1964, graphite on vellum) depicts a woman reclining in a small wooden vessel. With her knees bent and legs spread out, her body intertwines with the structure of the boat. In some of de Kooning’s similar works, the figure’s limbs are contained within the vessel, while in others, such as Rowboat, they are slung over the side in a more aggressive stance. Art curator Paul Cummings has noted that “by tilting the boat upward. . . [de Kooning] instills a sense of confined space.”
Here, as in several of his later drawings of the female form, he introduced additional elements of intensity — in Woman in a Rowboat, the voluptuous softness of the nude figure is accentuated by her wild, thick curly hair, wide eyes, and flashy grin. Another drawing in his famous Woman series is an abstract headshot where thick black strokes of charcoal surround the subject’s face, suggesting anger. Her facial expression and bright red lips deepen the intensity.
De Kooning also delved into the innocent world of childhood fantasies and iconic cartoon characters. One drawing, titled Abstraction (1945), is a lighthearted, animated drawing featuring two iconic cartoon characters. The mischievous Tasmanian devil character from the Looney Tunes is drawn with a rush of speed illustrated with thick, black strokes. Right in front of his face is the innocent-looking Thomas of the popular PBS children’s show Thomas and the Magic Railroad.
The lovable Thomas is shown with his typical, joyful smile as he charges ahead on his signature vehicle. Here, de Kooning captures swift movements while making distinctions between innocent and devilish. A few years later, he continued to explore the dichotomy of innocence and mischief with his drawing titled Dog, which depicted a Siberian husky on all four legs eagerly baring his sharp, pointy teeth.