"De Kooning’s premature artistic old age is apparent in his scrubbily painted, portraitlike studies of male figures of the late 1930s and early ’40s. Pallid, isolated men in environments fading away before our eyes, they seem at loose ends, capable of neither leisure nor labor; the eponymous figure in Seated Man (circa 1939) is apparently drumming his fingers with impatience at his never-ending time in Limbo. Moreover, the figures look pieced together out of spare parts; indeed, as Jennifer Field points out in the exhibition’s monumental catalog, the artist “recycled anatomical details” among these paintings. Other parts of the body might just fade away into nothingness. The subject of Seated Figure (Classic Male), circa 1941–43, barely seems to be in any one particular place at all; instead, he is a sum of approximations. There is something terribly poignant about these bald, muscular, petulant Frankensteins, lost in their nondescript rooms. They are people who have been used up by life. The paintings also show the strain of de Kooning’s effort to find a modern style while holding on to a recognizable human content—it is the pathos of van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters—that was fading away, evading his grasp."


Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation. Schwabsky has been writing about art for the magazine since 2005.


In defense of De Kooning, I sensed a mediating power trying to equilibrate body and mind for equilibrium in these works by De Kooning. As such, the body is an indeterminate focus that conjoins with the focus of inexpressible space here-and-now.



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S T O D A R T      I N F L U E N C E S

Malcolm Batty, Figure

Detail of Portrait of Prof. Yanaihara by Alberto Giacometti,
Seated Figure (Classic Male) by Willem De Kooning, circa 1941–43