Willem DE KOONING | Two figures in a landscape

The Netherlands 1904 – United States of America 1997

Two figures in a landscape 1968 oil on paper
signed l.r., oil, "de Kooning", not dated
122.5 (h) x 154.0 (w) cm
Framed 1263 (h) x 1581 (w) x 69 (d) cm Purchased 1973 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
NGA 1973.380 © Willem de Kooning/ARS. Licensed by Viscopy

  • the artist;
  • bought through Fourcade, Droll Inc., New York, by the Acquisitions Committee of the Australian National Gallery, March 1973
  • Willem de Kooning: January 1968 - March 1969
    • M. Knoedler & Co. Inc. 04 Mar 1969 – 22 Mar 1969
  • Willem de Kooning, Paintings Sculpture and Works on Paper
    • Baltimore Museum of Art 08 Aug 1972 – 24 Sep 1972
  • Willem de Kooning in East Hampton
    • Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 09 Feb 1978 – 23 Apr 1978
  • Body
    • Art Gallery of New South Wales 12 Sep 1997 – 16 Nov 1997
  • Willem de Kooning at the National Gallery of Australia
    • 13 Mar 1999 – 30 May 1999
  • Women. Pablo Picasso, Max Beckmann, Willem de Kooning
    • Pinakothek der moderne 30 Mar 2012 – 15 Jul 2012
  • Abstract Expressionism: the National Gallery of Australia celebrates the centenaries of Jackson Pollock and Morris Louis
    • 14 Jul 2012 – 24 Feb 2013
  • Willem de Kooning: January 1968 – March 1969, M. Knoedler & Co. Inc., 4–22 March 1969, cat. 7, illus;
  • Gabriel Drudi, de Kooning, Milan: Fratelli Fabri Editori 1972, illus. col. pl. 154, as Two women in a landscape II;
  • Harold Rosenberg, Willem de Kooning, New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. 1973, illus. col. pl. 181, as Two women in landscape II;
  • Thomas B. Hess, 'Four pictures by de Kooning at Canberra', Art and Australia vol. 14 nos 3 & 4, January–April 1978, pp. 289–290, illus. col., as Two women in landscape II;
  • Mark Stevens, 'De Kooning in bloom', Newsweek, 20 February 1978, pp. 50–51, illus. col.;
  • Janet Hobhouse, 'De Kooning in East Hampton', Artnews vol. 77 no. 4, April 1978, pp. 108–110, illus. col.;
  • Diane Waldman, Willem de Kooning in East Hampton, New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 1978, cat. 18, illus. b&w p. 47;
  • James Mollison and Laura Murray (eds), Australian National Gallery: An Introduction, Canberra: Australian National Gallery, 1982, pp. 108–109, illus. col.;
  • Michael Lloyd and Michael Desmond, European and American paintings and sculptures 1870–1970 in the Australian National Gallery, Canberra: Australian National Gallery 1992, pp. 262–264, illus. col.;
  • Sally Yard, Willem de Kooning, New York: Rizzoli 1997, p. 128, illus. col. fig. 80 p. 96;
  • Anthony Bond, Body, Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales 1997, cat. 38, p. 174, illus. col. fig. 58;
  • Susie Bioletti, ‘Drawing on a painting’, artonview no. 17, Autumn 1999, p. 29, illus. col. with details;
  • Carla Schulz-Hoffmann (ed.), Women: Pablo Picasso, Max Beckmann, Willem de Kooning, Munich: Pinakothek der Moderne 2012, cat. 89, pp. 300–01 illus. col., p. 330

Paradoxically de Kooning's series of landscape paintings petered out once he had completed his move to Springs, in June 1963. Images of women once again became the focus of his work. At this time, de Kooning began a prolific output of freely drawn, charcoal figures that invented and defined this series of women. He experimented on paper, drawing with his eyes closed or using his left hand to deny his own technical facility and avoid cliché. These experiments bred technical innovations and new forms which flowed through to his paintings. Two figures in a landscape is one of many small works made on paper that were informed by these drawings and which, in turn, relate to larger paintings on canvas or panel.

In de Kooning’s drawings and paintings on paper from this period, the figures tend to cluster together and float centrally on an untouched surface.[1] There are fewer direct references to the landscape though, in the larger paintings, woman and landscape co-exist in an uneasy relationship. The two women in this work are ambiguously described: it is difficult to determine if they are standing, sitting, squatting or lying down. The figure on the right is clearly built with the conventional attributes of feminine glamour—shapely legs, elaborate hairstyle, pouting red mouth and fluttering eyelashes. She is descended from the voluptuous Rubenesque women that de Kooning created at the start of this Clam digger series. The other figure, with its legs splayed, grinning teeth and rolling eye, is woman as Nature, unruly and wild.

Two figures in a landscape is painted on seven sheets of strong, translucent architect's tracing paper. This paper was integral to de Kooning's collage approach, and he used it to record intriguing sections of his paintings or to transfer images between drawings and paintings. The sheets could be combined, cut up or worked up in their own right. The left-hand figure appears to be the starting point of the composition. The figure is centrally placed on the two most regularly sized sheets of tracing paper. While it is possible that de Kooning drew the image directly onto the paper, the use of two sheets, rather than one large piece, suggests that he traced an existing image. This would also explain the addition of further strips of tracing paper to the top and sides to accommodate a larger, two-figure composition. Continuous paint-strokes across the joins indicate that the whole composition was painted in a single sitting. Indeed, the paintings on canvas might be worked, scraped back, reworked and edited over a long period, but the series of paintings on paper, like Two figures in a landscape, were generally executed without interruption.

A series of enigmatic marks at the bottom of the painting suggest letters of the alphabet.[2] These seem to have been added after work on the figures was complete, to describe the legs of the figures and the legs of furniture on which they are resting. Indeed, de Kooning's drawings of the mid 1960s commonly show figures lying on low recliners or sitting on chairs.

Michael Lloyd and Michael Desmond, European and American Paintings
and Sculptures 1870–1970 in the Australian National Gallery
Canberra: Australian National Gallery 1992, pp. 262–264, revised version

[1] Unlike the larger paintings where the image is expanded and stretched to fill the canvas.

[2]In the past, de Kooning had begun a number of paintings by writing letters or words on the picture as visual prompts for new forms or associations. See Thomas B. Hess, 'Four Pictures by de Kooning at Canberra', Art and Australia vol. 14 nos 3 & 4, 4 January–April 1977, pp. 289–296, at p. 295.

As well as two oil paintings on canvas and two oils on paper, the National Gallery of Australia holds the artist’s proof of the de Kooning – Harold Rosenberg collaboration Revenge (New York: Morris Gallery 1960), an early lithograph, Clam digger 1967. It also holds the set of artist’s proofs of the lithographs made by de Kooning at the Hollander Workshop, New York, 1970–71, one of his bronze multiples (5/100) dated 1972, and a pastel, charcoal and pencil drawing Untitled (Figures in landscape) 1974.