Paradoxically, de Kooning's series of landscape paintings petered out once he had completed his move from New York City to the Springs, East Hampton, on Long Island, in June 1963, almost as if his longing for the landscape had been fulfilled. Images of women once again became the focus of his work. At this time de Kooning began what became a prolific output of freely drawn charcoal figures that invented and defined this series of women. He experimented on paper, drawing with his eyes closed or using his left hand to deny his own technical facility and avoid cliché. These experiments bred technical innovations and new forms which flowed through to his paintings. Two figures in a landscape is one of many small paintings made on paper that were informed by these drawings and which in turn relate to larger paintings on canvas or panel.
In the drawings and paintings on paper the figures tend to cluster together and float centrally on an untouched surface, unlike the larger paintings where the image is expanded and stretched to fill the canvas. Direct references to the landscape in all works are fewer, though in the larger paintings woman and landscape co-exist in an uneasy relationship. The two women appearing in the Australian National Gallery's painting are ambiguously described; it is difficult to determine if they are standing, sitting, squatting or lying down. The figure on the right is clearly built with the conventional attributes of feminine glamour — shapely legs, elaborate hair-style, pouting red mouth and fluttering eyelashes. She is descended from the voluptuous Rubenesque women de Kooning had crated at the start of this series of women in Clamdiggers 1964 (collection Mrs Tyler G. Gregory, Beverly Hills). The other figure, with its legs splayed, grinning teeth and rolling eye, is woman as Nature, unruly and wild.
Two figures in a landscape is painted on seven sheets of strong and translucent architect's tracing paper that de Kooning frequently used for drawings and paintings. A sympathetic support for both charcoal or paint, this paper was integral to de Kooning's collage approach to painting, and he used tracing paper to record intriguing sections of his paintings or to transfer images between drawings and painting. These sheets could be combined, cut up or worked up in their own right. Th left-hand figure appears to be the starting point of the Gallery's composition. The figure is centrally placed on the two most regularly sized sheets of tracing paper. Perhaps de Kooning drew the image directly onto the paper, but the use of two sheets rather than one large piece suggests he traced an existing image from a painting or drawing. This would also explain the addition of further strips of tracing paper to the top and sides to accommodate a larger, two-figure composition. Continuous paint-strokes across the joins indicate that the whole composition was painted in a single sitting. Indeed the paintings on canvas might be worked, scraped back, reworked and edited over a long period of time, but the series of paintings on paper, like Two figures in a landscape, were generally executed without interruption.
A series of enigmatic marks at the bottom of the painting suggest letters of the alphabet.1 In a number of works in the past de Kooning had begun paintings by writing letters or words on the picture as visual prompts for new forms or associations. The marks on the Gallery's painting on the contrary appear to have been added after work on the figures. In fact, these marks describe the legs of the figures and the legs of furniture on which they are resting. De Kooning's drawings of the mid-1960s commonly show figures lying on low recliners or sitting on chairs. The Gallery also owns a later painting by de Kooning, Untitled IX, 1983.
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.262.
- Thomas B. Hess, 'Four Pictures by de Kooning at Canberra', Art and Australia, vol. 14, nos 3 and 4 January-April 1977 pp.289-96.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010