Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning b. 1904, Rotterdam, Netherlands; d. 1997, East Hampton, New York
Oil on canvas
79 15/16 x 70 1/16 inches (203 x 178 cm)
Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa
2012 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Although often cited as the originator of Action Painting, an abstract, purely formal and intuitive means of expression, Willem de Kooning most often worked from observable reality, primarily from figures and the landscape. From 1950 to 1955, De Kooning completed his famous Women series, integrating the human form with the aggressive paint application, bold colors, and sweeping strokes of Abstract Expressionism. These female “portraits” provoked controversy not only with their vulgar carnality and garish colors, but also because of their embrace of figural representation, a choice deemed regressive by many of De Kooning's Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, but one to which he consistently returned for many decades.
Composition serves as a bridge between the Women and De Kooning's next series of work, classified by critic Thomas Hess as the Abstract Urban Landscapes (1955–58). According to the artist, “the landscape is in the Woman and there is Woman in the landscapes.” Indeed, Composition reads as a Woman obfuscated by De Kooning's agitated brushwork,clashing colors, and all-over composition with no fixed viewpoint. Completed while the artist had a studio in downtown New York, Composition's, energized dashes of red, turquoise, and chrome yellow suggest the frenetic pace of city life, without representing any identifiable urban inhabitants or forms.
Even at the height of his Abstract Urban Landscapes series De Kooning relies, however subconsciously, on references to the female body. This can be seen in the abstracted contours painted in fleshlike hues of Untitled (1958). In the late 1950s De Kooning reduced the frenzied proliferation of stroke, form, and plane that had characterized his preceding work to yield compositions of relative restraint and clarity. Villa Borghese is marked by expansive areas of color, contoured only by the physical edges of the paint, which underline the textural complexities of the medium. The work nonetheless recalls through its title and horizontal orientation a view of the Italian countryside.