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  • Provenance

    M. Knoedler & Co., New York; O’Hara Gallery, New York

  • Exhibited

    New York, Neuberger Museum, Willem de Kooning, 1975; Paris, Galerie Enrico Navarra, Willem de Kooning, 1989, New York, Lang and O'Hara Gallery, Willem de Kooning, 1990

  • Catalogue Essay

    Willem de Kooning’s Torso of a Man was executed during an important and fruitful phase of the artist’s incredibly long career. The charcoal and oil drawing is an exemplary work from a period during which de Kooning stepped back from the more abstracted paintings of the late 1950s and re-engaged with an exploration of the figure. In 1963, prompted by a sense that New York City had ceased to provide the inspiration it had in the previous three decades, and saddened by the death of his close friend Franz Kline and the symbolic end of an era, de Kooning made the significant decision to leave New York City. The artist found himself reinvigorated by a retrospective at the MoMA of Archile Gorky’s work, much of it painted during a ‘late flowering in his art’ due to a move outside of the city, which “could only strengthen de Kooning’s own resolve to leave the city and seek out a private renewal in the countryside.” (M. Stevens and A. Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2005, p. 441) In his new setting on eastern Long Island de Kooning’s art took on new momentum: “Goethe said that when you’re sixty you start all over again, and that’s what I’m doing.” (Willem de Kooning quoted in de Kooning: An American Master, p. 463) In 1965, the first important retrospective exhibition of his work was shown in the U.S., he was producing his iconic series of women painted on door-sized panels, participating in documenta 3 in Kassel, and had entered an important ‘patron’ relationship with collector Joseph Hirshhorn. During this time de Kooning was fully engaged with an ongoing series of drawings and paintings which drew attention to his skills as a draftsman. Torso of a Man highlights the finesse of his mark making, combing a light lose touch with bold strokes of red and green, and illuminates the mastery the artist had with charcoal. The figures on display are pulled in different directions, tugged apart, as De Kooning reworked the human body and its engagement with space, devising new ways of approaching and breaking down the figure, investing these explorations with great emotional force. “The fugitive nature and fragility of the charcoal medium, as well as the wavering incompletion of the drawn configurations, impart transience to these figures that soon temper their joy with pathos.” (K. Kertess, Willem de Kooning: Drawing Seeing/Seeing Drawing, New York, 1998, p.17) Without the fleshy tones de Kooning used in the ‘door’ series works, such as in the painting ‘Woman, Sag Harbor’ (1964), his more sparse Torso of a Man features much starker colours, yet has the same ferocity of brushstroke, capturing the intense energy with which de Kooning worked. He even made his own brushes, adding extra-long hairs to them to be able to make such powerful strokes in single gestures. Torso of a Man shares the same width as the large scale door series as well as the same aggressive approach to articulating the limbs and genitals of his figures, spreading and splaying out from an exaggerated central torso. De Kooning’s interest in drawing the figure stemmed from a firm grasp of art historical precedent, and he was incredibly open to looking at a range of draftsmen and painters from the Renaissance to his contemporaries. “More than any of his peers, he kept the door open to painters of the past; Rubens’ paintings were as contemporary to de Kooning as Pollock’s.Through that door to the past, he welcomed the figure to cohabit with the abstraction of the present.” (K. Kertess, de Kooning: Paintings 1960 – 1980, Kunstmuseum Basel, 2006, p. 46) His interest in the figure galled the pre-eminent art critic of the time, Clement Greenberg, the consummate champion of abstraction, but de Kooning was insistent that his explorations of the body were more than relevant in their creative explorations and links to the past: “de Kooning of all the Abstract Expressionists, looks the most comfortable in the company of the grandest genealogical tables of art history…. the phantoms of the figural traditions of Western art refused to expire in de Kooning’s hands, which kept conjuring presences as remote as the Sumerian sculptures at the Metropolitan Museum or as stridently new as ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’s’ quintet of femmes fatales. Anachronistic as de Kooning’s persistent attraction to the human form may have seemed to many more drastic innovators, it was as essential to him as it was to most of the old masters. When Greenberg told him, “It is impossible today to paint a face,” his answer was: “That’s right, and it’s impossible not to.” (R. Rosenblum, Willem de Kooning: an Exhibition of Paintings, Salander­O’Reilly Galleries, New York, 1990, n.p) De Kooning’s paintings and drawings of female bodies are better known than his drawings of the male body, but for the artist they weren’t different pursuits. “There isn’t so much difference when you paint, between a man and a woman…. Many of my paintings of women have been self portraits. I never thought very much about what sex they were.” (Willem de Kooning quoted in Willem de Kooning Paintings, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1994, p. 67) In Torso of a Man, male genitals are clearly apparent at the top of the drawing, within the figure in green. The red strokes below seem to indicate a female figure as defined by de Kooning’s characteristic W-shaped motif which he often used to represent a female body’s legs spread wide open. As seen in ‘The Visit’ (1966-1967), and echoed in the present lot, the ‘spread-leg’ symbol embodied in this mark “becomes an effective shorthand for describing the contour of buttocks” of a woman seated with her legs open before the viewer, revealing everything. In light of de Kooning’s revelations that the male and female bodies were interchangeable and often self-referential, the figure seems particularly exposed and open to multiple interpretations, an idea de Kooning himself embraced: “That’s what fascinates me – to make something I can never be sure of, and no one else can either. I will never know, and no one else will ever know…That’s the way art is.” (Willem de Kooning quoted in de Kooning: Paintings 1960-1980, Kunstmuseum Basel, 2006, p. 154)

  • Artist Biography

    Willem de Kooning

    American • 1904 - 1997

    Born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Willem de Kooning moved to the United States in his early 20s, arriving in Manhattan by 1927. A founding member of the Abstract Expressionist movement in New York, de Kooning was a contemporary of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and of course his wife, Elaine de Kooning. Having claimed that “flesh is the reason why oil painting was invented,” de Kooning is best known for his rapid, forceful brushwork and thickly impastoed paint in evoking the human body, even as some of his contemporaries moved towards pure abstraction. Like the other New York School painters, de Kooning was a proponent of “Action Painting,” which emphasized the physical aspect of the work, eschewing the idea that painting was necessarily a careful, precise art form.

    By the 1960s, the artist was living and working in East Hampton, where he managed to breathe new life into his work after decades in an urban environment and remained there until his death in 1997 at the age of 92. De Kooning’s works reside in leading institutions worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., Tate, London, and Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

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144

Torso of a Man

1965
Oil on paper laid down on board.
141.6 x 91.4 cm. (55 3/4 x 36 in).
Signed ‘de Kooning’ lower left.

Estimate
£800,000 - 1,200,000 

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

28 Feb 2008, 7pm
London