Craig F. Starr Gallery is pleased to announce Willem de Kooning: Men and Women, 1938-48, which will be on view from May 4 through July 30, 2021. The exhibition will include six works made in the decade prior to the artist’s groundbreaking Woman paintings of the early 1950s. This selection offers an intimate overview of the evolution of de Kooning’s figures, from naturalistic to abstract, and focuses on themes of ambiguity, transformation, and doubling, which are evident not only in his compositions, but also in his working methods.
The exhibition begins with two early, naturalistically rendered portraits, Working Man, c. 1938 and Portrait of Elaine, 1940-41. These two drawings highlight de Kooning’s talents as a draftsman. As the earlier work is a presumed self-portrait of the artist, the two together could be considered a double portrait of the soon-to-wed couple as well as a forerunner to de Kooning’s later two-figure compositions.
Figure, 1944 represents an important transitional period in the artist’s development. Embodying the theme of doubling, the composition is androgynously titled and its figure ambiguously gendered, since the subject appears to wear a man’s trousers along with a woman’s dress.
De Kooning’s material practice – his use of collage, transfer, and tracing – partakes in ambiguity on its own terms. His characteristic doublings, or visual rhymes, not only appear multiple times within singular works, but also jump directly from one work to the next, as illustrated in this exhibition which pairs Untitled [Two Women], 1947 with Pink Lady, c. 1948, many passages of which were traced from the former.
Untitled [Three Figures], 1947/48, which includes tracings of the two previous works, as well as from two others, is another important addition in the exhibition because its instructional markings, visible in the margins, indicating where tracings were taken from or to where they were attached.
Ambiguity and transformation are ubiquitous in these works. Drawing mixes with painting, figures emerge from and dissolve into backgrounds, they are repeated but are also different. Abstraction is conflated with representation, and the preconceived is fused with the spontaneous. De Kooning makes self-evident his labor and process, explicitly rendering not necessarily related attempts and corrections, conveying a sense of searching, through his materials and with his hand. This continuous searching, one of both of desire and anxiety, results in a strange, sometimes savage, but still seductive, beauty.