Exploring the Action Painting of Willem De Kooning

For a contemporary art class, I was tasked with creating a project based on the work of the action painter Willem De Kooning (1904-1997), one of the few Abstract Expressionists who continued to paint human figures. His paintings are made up of erratic and violent brushstrokes, creating a chaotic storm of color and line. De Kooning’s work seems naïve at first glance, but his seemingly simple execution belies the belabored painting process involved in the creation of his art. Unlike some of his contemporaries (e.g. Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko), the final painting was less important than the process of making it. De Kooning’s figures were painted and reworked many times over in an attempt to capture what he called the “intimate proportions” of anatomy. He rejected traditional anatomy, warping and interchanging elements of the figure to achieve a new level of intimacy through nontraditional proportions. De Kooning’s female subjects are represented as voluptuous, almost Paleolithic (e.g. Venus of Willendorf), and painted with such ferocity that they appear menacing. The viewer both fears and reveres the figure, reflecting mankind’s ambivalence toward the feminine.

My own work has always been highly representational. However, I found De Kooning’s meditations on human perception and human intimacy fascinating. I can relate to his reluctance to forgo figurative painting. The human figure has always been a wellspring from which I draw inspiration. To me, nothing is as compelling as the gentle curve of the female form or the subtle quiver of the mouth. I think, ultimately, that my desire to capture the essence of a person is driven by my desire to understand them. De Kooning attempted to capture the essence of the people he painted by ignoring physical traits (and to De Kooning, superficial traits) or warping them. My approach differs. I emphasize the physical nature of the person, the beauty of the form, and thereby relay the character of my subject. Though our techniques are different, our goal is the same: to capture identity, personhood, what it means to be human.

For this project, I set out to create a painting as De Kooning would. I found his approach interesting, not just philosophically but technically as well. The figure I painted is female (as my primary interest is female beauty), but it’s a warped and hellish figure with a ghastly smile and wide eyes. I sought to capture the menacing power that De Kooning portrayed in his paintings while maintaining a certain beauty in the feminine form. I found the uninhibited painting process liberating, and I quite enjoyed the tactile quality of the erratic brush strokes and varying thicknesses of the oil paints on the panel. Unfortunately, due to time restraints, I didn’t have the luxury of laboring on the work over an extended period (De Kooning would spend months on one painting), so this project became more of an exploration of De Kooning’s style and subject matter than of his painting process. Pictured below is the final painting.

Reclining Woman, study in the style of Willem De Kooning

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