The image of woman that had been the primary subject of de Kooning's paintings from 1950 gradually began to dissolve into the landscape. By 1955 the women had virtually disappeared, subsumed and replaced by gestural abstractions inspired by the forms of the urban landscape. These paintings typically are made with small shapes tightly knitted together in strong primary colours, as a teeming conglomeration of horizontal and vertical marks. The paintings that followed show the shift of interest from city to countryside that was to climax in de Kooning's decision to move to the Springs, East Hampton, on the Atlantic coast, in 1961. Indeed while still living in New York, de Kooning had taken to painting occasionally in the country outside New York, often staying at the home of his brother-in-law, Peter Fried, who had moved to the Springs in 1955. De Kooning was eventually to purchase this house himself.
His paintings of 1957, such as the Gallery's July 4th, mark a change from the preceding landscapes in the use of wider brushstrokes, and enlarged and clarified areas that convey a sense of open natural spaces. The notion of rural landscape is suggested by the strong white horizontal band at the bottom of the painting, formed by the removal of tape protecting the white paper support. At this time de Kooning had made a number of paintings titled after roadways — for example Montauk Highway 1958 (collection Michael and Dorothy Blankfort), Palisade 1957 (collection Milton a. Gordon, New York) — and Thomas B. Hess has drawn attention to the way this ribbon of white suggests highway, bridge or horizon line. Certainly this parallel may have amused de Kooning, for he rarely allowed so strong a feature to remain unaltered in his work. No doubt this is also because de Kooning used small paintings on paper as a test bed for new ideas and accidental effects that could be incorporated into larger works. July 4th itself is built from pre-existing work, being composed of a single sheet of paper painted in oil paint, to which torn pieces from another crustily painted sheet have been overlaid, then trimmed back to the sheet size.
De Kooning had perfected a collage approach to art-making over the previous decade. Often he would overlay sections of his paintings with drawings, incorporating them into the work, or trace areas of a work to use at a later stage. Collage allowed de Kooning to test a variety of solutions to painterly problems, each alternative on paper provoking new effects or inspiring further possibilities. De Kooning fully capitalised on the breaks in the continuity of the painted surface generated by the addition or subsequent removal of collaged elements. The white strip produced by the removal of masking tape at the bottom of July 4th is a crude but startling example of this. Adding elements of an existing painting on paper on the upper half of the Gallery's work produces no less dramatic elisions which break up the image to create new structures. Photographs of de Kooning taken in 1959 show similar painted fragments tacked together in a happy arrangement on the studio wall. July 4th initially had the sculptural facility of this loose construction, but was flattened and glued down by Elaine de Kooning to facilitate mounting and framing.1
Like other paintings titled with calendar references made during the 1950s — Easter Monday 1955-56 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), or First of January 1956 (collection Dr and Mrs John A. Cook, New York) for example — the title July 4th refers to the date the painting was completed.
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.260.
- Thomas B. Hess, 'Four Pictures by de Kooning at Canberra', Art and Australia, vol. 14, nos 3 and 4 January-April 1977, p.295.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010