Art Since 1945

Willem de Kooning (American, Rotterdam 1904 - 1997 New York)
Two Women, 1952
Signed lower left in red and blue pencil: de Kooning
Pastel, charcoal, and graphite on wove paper
17 3/4 x 22 3/32 in. (45.1 x 56.1 cm)
Friends of Art Fund, 1957
AMAM 1957.11

As in dozens of drawings related to de Kooning's Woman canvases of 1950-52, Two Women 1 presents the female figure as the object of the artist's procedures of abstraction. The emphatically gestural marks and apparent exchangeability of body parts and shapes intensify the work's provocative address as an image of woman.

In the summer of 1952, de Kooning temporarily abandoned the monumental Woman canvas (Woman I, 1950-52; New York, The Museum of Modern Art, inv. 487.53) that he had been working on for the past two years. In his summer house at Easthampton he executed dozens of pastel drawings, recapitulating in this medium the planar forms and interpenetrating environments that had characterized his work on the woman theme for the several years preceding.

Many of the pastel drawings of 1952, including the Oberlin sheet, depict two standing women and refer back to one of the earliest stages of the painting Woman I, a seven-foot high drawing of two women produced by de Kooning during the summer of 1950. 2 That drawing, which consisted of two sheets of paper that de Kooning had attached to his painting wall, was destroyed in the course of his work on the painting.

Drawing had always played a critical role in de Kooning's practice. The sustained analyses of planar form and increasingly gestural attack that characterize drawings from the late 1930s culminated in the Woman paintings of the late ‘40s to the mid '50s, when his drawing, both as a medium of investigation and a repertory of mark-making, became inseparable from the artist's concept and process of painting. 3

In the Woman drawings of 1950-52, the movements of the draftsman's wrist, the varied pressure of his application of medium, and the friability of charcoal and pastel--the medium's potential for smudging and erasure--were put to effective use. De Kooning employed smudges and particularly erasure to complicate figure-ground relationships, to register contrasting forms, to fragment dense areas of medium, and to make yet another kind of contact with medium and sheet. In addition, the artist's typical "jumps" or ellipses from one spatial incident to another appear fluid and even lyrical in many of these drawings, particularly the pastels of the summer of 1952.

Oberlin's Two Women is less elaborate than many of the 1952 pastels in its indication of body parts and environment, although its sense of movement and spontaneity is especially strong. In depicting one figure frontally and the other from the rear, the Oberlin work is "anatomically" closer to the large, initial drawing of two women of 1950 than most of the other standing woman images of 1952, in which both figures are frontal or are given ambiguous cues of orientation.

A. Kurlander

Work (C) 1998 Willem de Kooning Revocable Trust/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Born in Rotterdam in 1902, Willem de Kooning studied at the city's Academie van Beelende Kunsten from 1916 to 1924, while working for a commercial art firm. He emigrated to the United States in 1926 and moved the following year to New York, where he earned a living as a sign-painter. By the 1930s he was involved with the New York avant-garde, and was particularly close to John Graham (1881-1961) and Arshile Gorky. Until the early 1940s de Kooning's work drew from the sources, including the work of Graham, Miró, and Picasso, that were of interest to so many younger painters in New York. He worked on various mural projects for the WPA in 1935-36. In 1938 he met the painter Elaine Fried, his future wife, and began his first series of Women. During the late 1930s and early ‘40s, de Kooning's painting became progressively vigorous, even violent in palette and execution. The figure underwent increasing fragmentation into irregular, planar shapes. The artist's resistance to terminating work on a canvas--the most famous example of which would be Woman I of 1950-52 (New York, The Museum of Modern Art)--was already an important aspect of his practice.

By the mid 1940s de Kooning's characteristic forms and complex interweaving of drawing and color, figure and ground, and plane and surface took shape in both figural works and abstractions. Between 1945 and 1950 he executed a series of Black and White Abstractions, which included the painter's largest canvas up to that time. Despite the formal and procedural equivalence of de Kooning's figural and abstract painting throughout this period, the series of Woman paintings from 1950-55, first shown at Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, in 1953, were initially greeted in the art press as a momentous reversion to figuration; for many, they were also shocking portrayals of the female body. The gendered character of de Kooning's Woman paintings of the 50s continue to be an important subject of art-historical inquiry. From the mid 1950s to the early 60s de Kooning produced many remarkable abstractions, which he called landscapes, and whose virtuosic execution, assured touch, and justness of pictorial relationships may still be unmatched in American abstract painting. Throughout the 1960s and 70s the themes of woman and landscape continually intersected in de Kooning's painting, while his palette and brushwork progressively softened. The artist continued to work into the 1980s (although suffering from Alzheimer's disease from around 1981); he produced a large number of sculptures between 1969 and 1974, and a group of luminous abstract paintings in the 1980s. He died in New York on 19 March 1997.

General References
Larson, Philip, and Peter Schjeldahl. Willem de Kooning: Drawings and Sculptures. Exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1974.

With Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, from whom purchased in 1957

The Arts Club of Chicago, 1966. Drawings 1916/1966. 28 February - 11 April. Cat. no. 54.

Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, 1974. Willem de Kooning: Drawings and Sculptures. 9 March - 21 April (also shown at Ottowa, The National Gallery of Canada; Washington, D.C., The Phillips Collection; Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery; Houston, The Museum of Fine Arts; St. Louis, Washington University Gallery of Art). Cat. no. 62.

Hess, Thomas B. Willem De Kooning: Drawings. Greenwich, Conn., 1972, pp. 46-47.

Larson, Philip, and Peter Schjeldahl. Willem de Kooning: Drawings and Sculptures. Exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; New York, 1974, cat. no. 62.

Stechow, Wolfgang. Catalogue of Drawings and Watercolors in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College. Oberlin, 1976, p. 16, fig. 25.

Goldstein, Nathan. Figure Drawing: The Structure, Anatomy and Expressive Design of Human Form. 3d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1987, pp. 26-28.

Hobhouse, Janet. The Bride Stripped Bare: The Artist and the Nude in the Twentieth Century. London, 1988, p. 250.

Technical Data
The colored medium has a translucent quality, rather like wax crayon in appearance, which was achieved by rubbing the surface. Much of the graphite and pastel was laid down with hard, abrupt strokes.

The sheet is in fair condition. The paper support is light-struck in the image or possibly discolored from a fixative. In addition to the intentional and chance smearing and smudging of media, there are numerous handling marks in the margins, including many fingerprints. The sheet has many pin holes in the margins and one in the image, which corresponds to de Kooning's usual practice of covering the walls of his workspace with drawings from the same period.

The sheet was rematted in 1973. Hinges and Kraft tape were removed manually from the sides, and masking tape was removed mechanically from the bottom edge. The back of the sheet was cleaned with an eraser to help de-acidify the stains from the tape.

1. The original label for the drawing from the Sidney Janis Gallery bears the title Two Women III; it is not clear if the ordinate "III" is valid. While de Kooning numbered many of his Women paintings of the 1950s, there seems to be no precedent for numbered Woman drawings.

2. Thomas B. Hess, Willem de Kooning: Drawings (Greenwich, Conn., 1972), pp. 38, 46, ill. p. 12.

3. For the interdependency of de Kooning's drawing and painting during the early 1950s in particular, see, for example, Thomas B. Hess, Willem de Kooning: Drawings (Greenwich, Conn., 1972), pp. 42-47; Paul Cummings, "The Drawings of Willem de Kooning," in Willem de Kooning: Drawings, Paintings, Sculpture (exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1983), pp. 17-19; and Thomas B. Hess, "De Kooning Paints a Picture," Art News 52 (March 1953), pp. 30-33, 64-67.