From June 27 through September 8, 2002, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) presents Willem de Kooning: Tracing the Figure. Featuring 78 works on paper, this exhibition chronicles the progression of the artist’s renderings of the female figure between 1938 and 1955. One of the great pioneers of Abstract Expressionism, de Kooning is known for vivid paintings and drawings that revolve around his exploration of the human figure. Drawing from early twentieth-century abstraction in his initial attempt to redefine the figure, de Kooning traced, scraped, drew and re-drew the same line, thereby disrupting anatomical and spatial organization to express a sense of the fleeting nature of the individual. What evolved was an investigation into the ambiguities between the figure and its background that was to continue throughout de Kooning’s extensive career. Willem de Kooning: Tracing the Figure exposes a wide range of de Kooning’s works on paper. Together these drawings bear witness to the prominence of figuration in de Kooning’s oeuvre and in the realm of Abstract Expressionism.
Willem de Kooning: Tracing the Figure is a revealing examination of the artist’s apparent struggle to depict the female form. Evolving on paper out of precisely detailed and tightly realistic portraits into—eventually—fiercely sensual icons, de Kooning’s women extend beyond the limits of their medium. These female figures, dismembered and distorted, lay bare the burden of de Kooning’s quest to synthesize abstraction and figuration, and eliminate traditional barriers between painting and drawing. Willem de Kooning: Tracing the Figure is organized by The Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (MOCA) Chief Curator Paul Schimmel and Curator Connie Butler and prepared for its San Francisco presentation by Janet Bishop, SFMOMA curator of painting and sculpture.
“Willem de Kooning: Tracing the Figure is the second exhibition at SFMOMA in a decade to consider in depth a crucial aspect of this key artist’s career,” notes Bishop. “Having examined de Kooning’s late, mostly abstract paintings of the 1980s in depth in a 1995 show, it is a very welcome opportunity for the Museum to now focus on a project devoted to his seminal pictures of women—the work through which de Kooning established himself as a truly potent artistic force and a singular voice among his abstract expressionist contemporaries.”
De Kooning’s first series of women, produced between approximately 1938 and 1944, revealed the influences of his formal training and highlighted thematic dualities such as tradition and Modernism, geometry and automatism, figuration and abstraction. In the late 1940s de Kooning turned his drawings of women toward the semi-abstract, incorporating vivid color and collage elements to describe an increasing tension between flatness and the illusion of depth, as seen in Two Women on a Wharf, 1949. Subsequently, the artist’s double figure drawings began to emerge. As these figural compositions developed, geometric configurations transformed into architectural elements—as in Two Women, 1952. In the latest works chronicled in the exhibition, de Kooning’s women disintegrated even more fully into cross-layered brushwork in images whose size and intentional vulgarity establishes an almost violent sensuality—an exaggeration of gender also seen in popular imagery of the period.
Highlights from Willem de Kooning: Tracing the Figure include key pastels made between 1952 and 1953 that were the centerpiece of de Kooning’s 1953 exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York. Twelve of the 16 works on paper originally exhibited will be hung together for the first time since that groundbreaking show. This group of pastel and charcoal works—created in preparation for the famous painting, Woman I—represents the pinnacle of de Kooning’s examination of the female form on paper.
Willem de Kooning was born April 24, 1904, in Rotterdam, Amsterdam. Following formal studies in fine and applied art at the Rotterdam Academy, he emigrated to the United States at the age of 22. In New York he initially supported himself as a house painter and commercial artist. During the late 1920s and 1930s he developed friendships with fellow painters Stuart Davis, John Graham and Arshile Gorky while painting murals for the Federal Arts Project. De Kooning’s first major retrospective exhibition came in 1968 at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. In 1985 the artist received the National Medal of Arts in the United States. He died on March 19, 1997, on Long Island.
A comprehensive catalogue co-published by MOCA and Princeton University Press accompanies the exhibition. Willem de Kooning: Tracing the Figure features 85 color plates, essays by Paul Schimmel, Connie Butler and leading art historians Anne Wagner and Richard Shiff. Schimmel focuses on the artist’s activities during 1952, a pivotal year in de Kooning’s career, while Butler traces the critical reaction to the female subject, both during de Kooning’s lifetime and in the contemporary context. Shiff’s essay focuses on the issue of control as it manifests itself in de Kooning’s drawings, while Wagner looks at early criticism about the artist, particularly the writings of Thomas Hess and Clement Greenberg. Additional support for the exhibition catalogue has been provided by the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation.
The national tour of Willem de Kooning: Tracing the Figure has been sponsored by Wells Fargo.
Generous support has also been provided by The Sydney Irmas Exhibition Endowment; Maria Hummer and Bob Tuttle; the National Endowment for the Arts; Genevieve and Ivan Reitman; Audrey M. Irmas; Beatrice and Philip Gersh; The Mnuchin Foundation; and Betye Monell Burton.