De Kooning used oil and enamel sign paint to make this black and white abstraction, which he created in the same year as he held his first solo exhibition. He began Painting by transferring segments of figurative drawings to the canvas, then applying layers of paint. He maintained that “even abstract shapes must have a likeness.” Indeed, these black forms bounded by white seem to approximate letters or human forms that never yield full legibility. Within the confines of a black and white palette, de Kooning delivers a complex and rich handling of paint: it drips, bleeds, congeals into solid forms, or dissolves into diaphanous streaks—all of which result in a densely packed painting composed with a great economy of means.
Gallery label from 2007.
De Kooning used oil and enamel sign paint to make this work. With tracing paper he transferred segments of figurative drawings to the canvas, then applied layers of paint. “Even abstract shapes must have a likeness,” he said, and these black forms bounded by white vaguely resemble human figures and inanimate objects. The paint drips, bleeds, congeals, and dissolves into delicate streaks, resulting in a densely packed painting composed with a great economy of means.
Gallery label from Abstract Expressionist New York, October 3, 2010-April 25, 2011.
Painting is a scene of tensile energy. Black forms fluidly outlined in white interlock and overlap, slip under or into each other. Their springing curves evoke the human body, and also perhaps letters of the alphabet, supplying familiarity without legibility. The palette is simplified but the handling is various: paint may drip or bleed, black may be solid or run to gray, white may be pulled thin across black or may suggest a width between black shapes. Figure and ground confuse in this shallow space, yet the painting conveys less ambiguity than enormous certainty.
Painting is one of a group of black-and-white abstractions that de Kooning produced in the late 1940s. He had painted abstractly before, but had also addressed the human figure, and, in fact, continued to do so in other pictures from the same period as this one; abstraction and figuration are not mutually exclusive in de Kooning’s art, but feed into each other, not only in similarities among forms in outwardly abstract and outwardly figurative paintings, but often within the same image. “Even abstract shapes must have a likeness,” the artist believed, and many viewers have seen the forms of breasts, limbs, and buttocks in the black-and-white works. The critic Thomas Hess, discussing these and other abstractions of de Kooning’s, remarked, “He also includes orgies.”
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999.