I was a young artist in the early 1950’s feeling the weight of a male-dominated art world in places I frequented like the Artist’s Club and the Cedar Bar. An underlying violent attitude toward women prevailed. It became even more apparent when Bill de Kooning showed his “Women” series. I loved his work but was upset by those paintings. The women look ripped apart with eviscerated body parts, one breast here, another there. They stare at you with huge terror-filled eyes, crazy grins, and clenched Chiclet teeth. Some of them have two mouths and they all look insane. When I first saw Woman and Bicycle in 1952 I hated it.
The intense emotions de Kooning displays in these paintings must have originated when he was a young man in Amsterdam. He visited the Red Light District and saw prostitutes standing in windows flashing body parts to attract men passing by: a breast here, a thigh there, buttocks, pubis, hair, high heel shoes, disconnected body parts flashing before his eyes as he walked along. De Kooning attempts to capture that fleeting moment, the glimpse before it disappears and morphs into another body part peeking out of another window or doorway, beckoning him, seducing him.
Audrey Flack with Woman and Bicycle
He fought with his mother – she was a difficult and terrible woman who beat his younger brother on a daily basis and loved to fight with Willem. Those feelings of love, hate, and the terror he felt toward his mother emerge in his “Women” series. It is interesting to note that de Kooning’s women smile, often with two mouths. Are they smiling to please or are they smiling as his mother might have smiled, enjoying the terror she inflicted?
What de Kooning was able to do as a great artist was bring to life those profound disparate emotions by painting women with disjointed body parts using moist, thick oil paint and making rapid marks that are intriguing and compelling. Over the years I have come back to these “Women” paintings and studied them. And most recently I stood before Woman and Bicycle at the Whitney Museum and marveled at the beauty and exciting complexity of the paint that de Kooning moved around the surface of the canvas. It kept me riveted. These paintings have continued to vibrate through the years with the hatred and love that de Kooning felt for all women, and that pulsation has given them a powerful afterlife. I am still fascinated.
Audrey Flack, Analysis of de Kooning’s Terrified Women, 2016, Prismacolor and pastel, 30 x 40 inches
Spanning nearly seven decades, the progression of Audrey Flack’s work has taken her from Abstract Expressionism to New Realism and Photorealism. In the early 1980’s Audrey began creating transformative sculpture for personal and public art commissions. www.audreyflack.com