Between figuration and abstraction, Willem de Kooning at auction on 7 June 2023

Post-War & Contemporary Art Auction
June 7 at 7pm at Tajan in Paris



PARIS – Tajan’s Contemporary Art department  unveils Woman, an oil, graphite and charcoal on paper by Willem de Kooning dating from 1946, which will be sold as lot 8 at the “Art d’Après-Guerre & Contemporain”auction on June 7.




Woman, 1946
Oil, graphite and charcoal on paper; signed lower right
10 ¼ x 10 ¼ in.

800 000 / 1 200 000 €


View lot

Roslyn, Nassau County Museum of Fine Art, The Abstract Expressionists and Their Precursors, 20 January-22 March 1981, reproduced under no. 14 p. 31 of the exhibition catalogue
Miami, Frances Wolfson Art Gallery, The Spirit of Paper: Twentieth Century Americans, 3 June-29 July 1982, reproduced under no. 7 in the exhibition catalogue
Davenport, Davenport Art Gallery, American Works on Paper: 100 Years of American Art History, a touring exhibiton organized by Smith Kramer Art Connections that toured through the United States, 11 December 1983-29 December 1985, reproduced as n°20 p. 30 in the exhibition catalogue
New York, Allan Stone Gallery, Willem de Kooning: Liquefying Cubism, 27 October 1994-22 January 1995, reproduced as n°21 in the exhibition catalogue


With its vivid colours and assertive mastery of line, Woman (1946) is a striking illustration of the singular expressionism, somewhere between figuration and abstraction, that enabled de Kooning to establish himself as one of the major figures of his generation. Bursting with unbridled energy and evoking a beauty that is at once sensual, graceful and disturbing, the composition bursts onto the intimate format of paper, further reinforcing the power of its impact and the talent of the man whom critics would describe as “the giant of North American painting”. Before changing hands, Woman (1946) belonged to the Polish-born American artist Janice Biala. It was through her husband, the renowned New Yorker cartoonist Daniel Brustlein, when he took her to Willem de Kooning’s studio in 1942 and offered her a painting as a birthday present, that she met the painter. From that moment on, a strong bond of friendship was forged. It was thanks to Janice that de Kooning was invited to take part in the exhibition “A Selection of Paintings of the Twentieth Century” at the Bignou Gallery, New York, alongside Chaim Soutine in 1943. A true supporter of the artist, the couple, who even organised their wedding party with Elaine later that year, acquired several works, including the one we are presenting here.

Woman was made in 1946, when de Kooning became the object of particular attention in the New York art world. It was during this period that gallery owners, including Charles Egan who offered him his first solo show in 1948, and critics began to show a greater interest in young American painting. The term ‘Abstract Expressionism’ first appeared on March 30, 1946, in an article by art critic Robert Coates published in the highly respected New Yorker. Although it had European influences, it was nonetheless the first genuine abstract art movement to emerge across the Atlantic, championed by the eminent – and influent – American thinkers and theorists Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. Nevertheless, although his legacy is undeniably rooted in the avant-garde of Abstract Expressionism, this affiliation has never suited de Kooning, for whom the female figure has always been a particularly fertile subject. “Flesh is the reason oil painting was invented,” he once remarked. By continually returning to the figure, he found a way to free himself from the pressures of formal composition, to break free from the antagonism between figurative and abstract art.

By the time he painted Woman in 1946, he had completed his first series of paintings of women from the early 1940s, presenting overtly feminine seated figures, reminiscent of Ingres portraits, in a way that exploded the already fragile connections between the parts of the body. Putting behind him his respect for traditional representation, he began to explore a new representational possibility, derived from Surrealism and Cubism, to reconstitute the human form in what would culminate in the series he began at the dawn of the 1950s, of which Woman I, conserved at MoMA, is the high point. Woman (1946) marks a period of transition. Following the dismemberment of the body in Pink Angels (1945), he sought to put the pieces back together, and to do so he turned to drawing. But rather than look back to his practice of the late 1930s, which stemmed from his academic training, he revisited his heritage of representation, in complex works on paper, to create a wholly distinctive aesthetic vision. De Kooning nevertheless continued to exploit the historical canon of Western art, in particular the classic motif of the reclining female nude in the manner of Delacroix and Matisse’s Algerian Women, or Manet’s Olympia. Like an allusion to the luxurious interiors of these classical paintings, the heritage is claimed only to be destroyed, de Kooning not defining the space decisively. Going further back, as Constance Schwartz describes it, Woman (1946) could also be seen as an “abstract Palaeolithic female torso, a prototype of the Venus of Willendorf” (in The Abstract Expressionists and Their Precursors, cat. exp. Nassau County Museum of Fine Art, 1981, p. 29). When asked about his way of representing women, de Kooning himself claimed to have been strongly influenced by the Mesopotamian figures with large eyes and voluminous forms exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and by Northern European primitive art, emphasising the references to the Venus of Willendorf.

Bursting forth from the intimate and precious format of paper, Woman (1946) testifies to the artist’s lack of distinction between drawing and painting during this period of his career. The small size of the work belies the vigorous energy of the brushstroke. Alternating furiously between charcoal, graphite and oil, the artist achieves incredible density through the use of expressive colours that, condensed into a jewel-like composition, convey all the energetic vigour of his action. The radiant yellow instantly dazzles the eye. De Kooning once said: “I create these vivid flesh colours. All I needed was white and orange to give me an ideal colour, a weird flat colour like Bavarian dolls. I did it completely arbitrarily”. The curved, fluid lines, which produce the illusion of a figure in motion, are counterbalanced by the geometric configuration dividing the background and suggesting a certain depth of space. The bold emerald green outline emerging from the background and the blue square evoking a window, signifying the metaphorical existence of an alternative space beyond the dimensional limits of the sheet, all present parallels with earlier portraits from the first Woman series of the early 1940s (Seated Woman, c. 1940 and Woman, 1944). However, the anatomical disorder and the face – of which only the large black eyes and a satisfied smile radiating upwards remain – imbued with an erotic suggestiveness that is both gentle and disturbing, foreshadow his later explorations of the human figure, combining beauty and brutality.

An eminent demonstration of the formal innovations that were to define the artist’s singular legacy, Woman takes us into the depths of de Kooning’s exploration of the supposedly antithetical notons of abstraction and figuration. At a time when the human figure was considered an obsolete subject, de Kooning defended himself by declaring: “The woman has been painted throughout the ages. For an artist of today, it is absurd to paint her again. But refusing to paint her is just as absurd. Woman reveals in all its splendour, with the same energy and intensity that define his best canvases, the way in which de Kooning efforcé to make this link between the influences of the past and the mainstream of the time to create his own aesthetic synthesising figuration and abstraction in an unparalleled way.







Post-War & Contemporary Art Auction
Evening Sale – 7 June 2023 – 7pm


Julie Ralli | Director of the Contemporary Art Department
T. +33 1 53 30 30 55
[email protected]