Willem DE KOONING | Untitled (Figures in landscape)

The Netherlands 1904 – United States of America 1997

Untitled (Figures in landscape) 1974 pastel, charcoal, pencil on paper

signed l.r. in charcoal "de Kooning";
not dated.
image 74.3 (h) x 79.2 (w) cm
framed 79.2 (h) x 84.3 (w) cm Purchased 1975 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
NGA 1975.552 © Willem de Kooning/ARS. Licensed by Viscopy

  • with the artist 1974–75;
  • from whom bought, through Fourcade, Droll, New York, by the Interim Council of the Australian National Gallery, December 1975
  • De Kooning New Works - Paintings and Sculpture
    • Fourcade Droll Inc 25 Oct 1975 – 06 Dec 1975
  • Twentieth-Century American Drawing: Three Avant-Garde Generations
    • Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 19 Dec 1975 – 25 Mar 1976
  • Twentieth-Century American Drawings: Three Avant-Garde Generations
    • Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 23 Jan 1976 – 21 Mar 1976
    • Staatliche Kunsthalle, Baden-Baden 27 May 1976 – 11 Jul 1976
    • Kunsthalle, Bremen 18 Jul 1976 – 29 Aug 1976
  • Willem de Kooning at the National Gallery of Australia
    • 13 Mar 1999 – 30 May 1999
  • Intensely Dutch
    • Art Gallery of New South Wales 05 Jun 2009 – 23 Aug 2009
  • De Kooning: A Retrospective
    • The Museum of Modern Art 18 Sep 2011 – 09 Jan 2012
  • Abstract Expressionism: the National Gallery of Australia celebrates the centenaries of Jackson Pollock and Morris Louis
    • 14 Jul 2012 – 24 Feb 2013
  • John Russell, ‘Art: 2 shows and 2 kinds of landscape—Nature in France; Human in de Kooning’, The New York Times, Saturday 1 November 1973, p. 27;
  • Twentieth-century American drawing: Three avant-garde generations, New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 1976, cat. 106, pp. 69, 72, illus. b&w;
  • Thomas B. Hess, 'Four pictures by de Kooning at Canberra', Art and Australia vol. 14 nos 3 & 4, January–April 1977, pp. 289–96, illus. col.;
  • Diane Waldman, Willem de Kooning in East Hampton, New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 1978, cat. 80, illus. b&w, p.110;
  • Lucina Ward, ‘A dame, some clams and the broad: Willem de Kooning at the NGA’, artonview no. 17, Autumn 1999, pp. 26–28, illus. col.;
  • John Elderfield, et al., De Kooning: A retrospective, New York: Museum of Modern Art 2011, cat. 172, p. 426, illus. col. p. 428

Untitled (Figures in landscape) epitomises de Kooning’s mature combination of abstraction and figuration in a complex way. The amalgamation of these two distinct modes of working, which are usually considered contradictory, was a practice that de Kooning established as a life-long program and one that he uniquely mastered. He literally stuffs his picture plane full of shapes that billow with volume and, in an instant, deflate into cavernous voids. Working in an abstract mode, he deftly models contours, working his flat surface as a sculptor would handle three dimensions. The image shifts, contorts and pulses with each graphite stroke, charcoal smudge and pastel patch of colour.

Looking at the figurative elements of de Kooning’s image, it is possible to make out two figures, both female—the one on the right stands, the one on the left is bent at the hips. The figure on the right shakes her mane of jet black hair, holding her elbows up in an awkward gesture and spreading her beastly, gnarled feet on the sand. The figure on the left, pink lips parted, bares her teeth. One giant green-clawed arm reaches across her body and seems to project out of the work towards the viewer in a menacing thrust. In the background the horizon is delineated in royal blue, indicating the stretch of sea at its point of meeting with the sky. In the upper left corner, a blue and red flag stands to mark the end of a safe swimming zone.

De Kooning’s combination of abstraction and figuration excites our senses. We can feel the ‘tremble’ of his drawn line: the neon yellow and bright green pastel bursts on the surface like clouds of coloured smoke only to be pinned back to the paper and anchored by the black of the charcoal. The fleeting glimpses of hands, feet, grinning teeth and breasts snatch the viewer’s attention, forcing the brain to work in recognition of human presence. Such a thrusting, contorting motion, punctuated by moments of identification, is a visual cacophony that could only be a Willem de Kooning spectacle. No other Abstract Expressionist was to achieve such mastery in abstract/figurative space-making.

De Kooning was in the habit of borrowing shapes and elements of his previous works, tracing them from one image to transplant on the next, like one would assemble a jigsaw puzzle. Untitled (Figures in landscape) borrows heavily from the poses practised by de Kooning in a set of charcoal drawings that the artist created in the late 1960s, often drawn with his eyes closed so as to free his physical execution.

Jaklyn Babington

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.