- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 19, 2002

New York abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning is famous even notorious for his "Women" paintings of the 1940s and 1950s. At first, these portraits of leering women with bulbous breasts repelled critics and public alike.

Now, the National Gallery of Art in its current exhibit "Willem de Kooning: Tracing the Figure" shows the artist's thinking behind the "Women" and why they were later considered icons of their time.

Serene, elegantly drawn portraits, such as the penciled image of his wife "Elaine de Kooning," kick off the show. Mr. de Kooning (1904-1997) was looking back to the fluid line of the 19th-century French classicist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, but the artist was already using line to distort and stylize the figure.

In the 1940s, he began to fracture organic shapes and figures of women in more violent ways. Mr. de Kooning developed at that time the ferocious, emotional style that became his lifelong expression. Figures dissolve into organic shapes and melt back again.

There is also the tension of his struggle between the figure and abstraction. Of the artists of his abstract-expressionist generation: Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, among others, he was the only one to concentrate on the figure. Still, knowing how far to abstract the figure always remained a problem for him.

These 66 drawings in graphite, charcoal, pastels and oil on paper complement the gallery's major exhibit of Mr. de Kooning's paintings in 1964 but better reveal his working processes. They show his simultaneous hunger and fear of women which, of course, were legendary.

He began his "Women" series by taking parts of figures and reassembling them as in "Study for 'Pink Angels'" (1945), in which a convoluted figure of pastel and graphite undulates across the paper. Flying birdlike figures are just recognizable in "Fire Island" (1946).

The wistful-looking figure of "Pink Lady (Study)" (circa 1948) is the most beautiful of the 1940s works. A female rests her head on her arm, staring ambiguously out at the viewer. She pulls her knees up close to her spheroid breasts. Another figure, almost invisible, appears at the right. Black Picasso-esque chalk lines delineate the forms. Mr. de Kooning challenges viewers to sort out the women's relationships.

"Picasso was the guy to beat out for American artists de Kooning, [Arshile] Gorky, Pollock, Kline and Stuart Davis," gallery exhibit curator Charles Ritchie says. Picasso and cubist forms lurk throughout all of Mr. de Kooning's 1940s work. Picasso, of course, stole ideas from African sculpture.

Mr. Ritchie points out the importance of the black outlines and emphasizes the importance of drawing and line in the artist's work. "The gestural mark, the energetic stroke would soon take over his painting, but Mr. de Kooning's superb line is there also," Mr. Ritchie says.

There is no mistaking the sexuality of the painter's late, monumental studies, which take over after 1950. Not even Rembrandt or Manet emphasized the sensuousness of flesh, mouth, vagina and breasts as Mr. de Kooning did.

He achieved the high point of his career in the 1950s with monumental figures, some inspired by pop idols such as Marilyn Monroe. The painter even turned to the vulgar by giving the women an almost brutal sensuality. Mr. de Kooning emphasizes their hips and buttocks and hides the mouths behind threatening buck teeth.

The women expand to fill out the works and he borrows from advertising art, magazines and billboards when he began to include a second woman in the paintings. He almost doubles the size of the women and compositions. He was always experimenting and would often paint out or erase a work up to 200 times.

"This was phenomenal as the works look so loose and open. But he was a doubter. It had to be perfect," Mr. Ritchie says.

The 1950s women sum up the artist's obsession. He had escaped Holland and his mother, Cornelia Nobel as a ship's stowaway in 1926. (She ran a sailor's bar on the waterfront of Rotterdam and had the requisite toughness.) Apparently, Nobel provided both the love and hatred of women that provided the leitmotif of his work.

These opposites can make the works explode with both beauty and ugliness. They are an interesting survey of the way the artist attacked his ideas and expanded them. This is a show not only for Mr. de Kooning's fans, but for everyone.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, organized the exhibit and the national tour.


WHAT: "Willem de Kooning: Tracing the Figure"

WHERE: East Building, National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street at Constitution Avenue NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sundays, through Jan. 5

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215

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