New York

“De Kooning/Dubuffet: The Women”

Pace | 32 East 57th Street

Though the debate over abstraction versus figuration lost its steam long ago, the paintings of women by Jean Dubuffet and Willem de Kooning of the late ’40s and early ’50s ferociously rage on.

Dubuffet mounted an attack on the bourgeois demand that art satisfy the desire for pleasurable looking in his notoriously anti-cultural and barbaric art brut style. Inspired by the strength of psychopathic art and graffiti and manufactured from mud, sand, and cement, Dubuffet’s “Corps de Dames” (Women’s bodies) series added insult to injury by hideously desanctifying and deeroticizing the traditionally venerated female form. Resurrected from an earthy heap, brutally slashed and scratched and pounded into existence, these anonymous women’s bodies are barren territories rather than real anatomies. If the “Corps de dames” deny the scopophilic instinct to take woman as object and subject her to a curious and controlling gaze, these abominable figures inadvertently perpetuate the cultural code that the unidealized female body is unworthy of the male gaze.

Whereas Dubuffet’s women lack any agency of their own, de Kooning’s women, which made their public debut shortly after his anointment as the abstract painter par excellence, are furious and avenging. They are the flash point of paint and frenzied gesture, born of a relentless and hostile process of painting, scraping away, and repainting—a daily practice that in the case of Woman I, 1950–52, lasted some 18 months. Perhaps that is the source of the strength in de Kooning’s women—women who have transcended their own death, who refuse the male gaze by aggressively seizing it. With their carnivorous mouths, flashing eyes, and heaving breasts, these are not passive pinups but predators who triumph through their raw, uncontained sexuality. It’s no wonder that when they were initially exhibited they were described as “monuments of confusion.” After systematically and brutally savaging the image of the female nude—Dubuffet pursued the theme for a year, de Kooning for five—both artists ploughed the women under as landscapes.

The narrow focus of their exhibition is commendable, but, at the same time, it is almost too neat a set up for a feminist critique, and it is precisely for this reason that it must be questioned. It would be as deluded to see misogyny as the only content of these paintings of monstrous women as it would be to ignore their cultural implications altogether. After concluding the “Corps de dames,” Dubuffet painted a small group of equally grotesque and violated male nudes; other subjects such as musicians, dentists, friends, and people on the street receive no more charitable treatment than the women. Maintaining that his position was exclusively one of celebration, Dubuffet insisted that his protest was against specious notions of beauty “inherited from the Greeks and cultivated by magazine covers.” By negating normative standards of beauty and pleasure, his women (and men) constitute an attempt to rehabilitate scorned values, and, in this respect, some might suggest that they inaugurated a new language of desire.

De Kooning’s embattled women provide the support on which abstraction underwent violent metamorphosis. Though his series of female warriors was executed over the course of five years, his struggle to come to terms with the image of woman lasted five decades and included serene, remote figures as well as lush Marilyns. It has been suggested that in attacking the canvas, or the image of the female nude, de Kooning’s attack was on himself. For this artist who once claimed that “flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented,” woman was both his phoenix and his deliverance. When he was stuck and couldn’t go on, a pair of smiling red lips on the canvas eliminated all need for composition and made painting possible again. As devouring goddess, Venus and whore, Eros and Thanatos, she became his compulsion; he could never get hold of her nor rid himself of her.

Jan Avgikos

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