Willem de Kooning

The Visit


Not on display

Willem de Kooning 1904–1997
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1524 × 1219 mm
frame: 1615 × 1303 × 78 mm
Purchased 1969

Display caption

De Kooning's boldly expressive style, with its thick gestural brushstrokes, meant that he was often categorised as an Abstract Expressionist. However his paintings often include recognisable figures, even if they are barely discernable. The central figure in The Visit is a woman with her legs spread out. In the right-hand corner is a shape that could be either the woman's outstretched hand, or a face in profile looking over her. The title was suggested by one of De Kooning's assistants, who thought that the composition resembled a medieval painting of the Annunciation.

Gallery label, July 2008

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Catalogue entry

Willem de Kooning born 1904 [- 1997]

T01108 The Visit 1966-7

Inscribed 'de Kooning' b.l.
Oil on canvas, 60 x 48 (152.5 x 122)
Purchased from the artist through M. Knoedler & Co., Inc. (Grant-in-Aid) 1969
Exh: Salon de Mai, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, April-May 1967 (63, repr.); 1967 Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, Whitney Museum, New York, December 1967-February 1968 (31, repr.); The Obsessive Image, ICA, London, April-May 1968 (23); de Kooning: Peintures Récentes, Knoedler, Paris, June 1968 (3); Willem de Kooning, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, September-November 1968 (88, repr.); Tate Gallery, December 1968-January 1969 (100, repr. in colour); Museum of Modern Art, New York, March-April 1969 (100, repr. in colour); Art Institute of Chicago, May-July 1969 (100, repr. in colour); Los Angeles County Museum, July-September 1969 (100, repr. in colour); Surrealität-Bildrealität 1924-74, Städtische Kunsthalle, Dusseldorf, December 1974-February 1975 (164, repr. in colour); Staatliche Kunsthalle, Baden-Baden, February-April 1975 (164, repr. in colour); The Sculptures of de Kooning with Related Paintings, Drawings and Lithographs, Serpentine Gallery, London, November 1977-January 1978 (26, repr. in colour); Willem de Kooning in East Hampton, Guggenheim Museum, New York, February-April 1978 (11, repr.)
Lit: Thomas B. Hess, de Kooning: Recent Paintings (New York 1967), pp.34-6, repr. in colour p.37, five stages from the photographic record of 'The Visit' in progress repr. pp.34-5
Repr: Art and Artists, II, May 1968, p.27; Art News, LXVII, March 1969, p.47 in colour

This picture, which was painted in The Springs, Long Island, over a period of several months, underwent a succession of radical changes in the course of its execution. Thomas B. Hess has given the following account of de Kooning's work on it (loc. cit.):

'Something of his procedure can be reconstituted in a series of about twenty remarkable color photographs taken by de Kooning's assistant of The Visit during its development on the artist's painting-wall in the winter of 1966-67. The moments of development he recorded are not formal stages in the painting's evolution (as Matisse, for example, had photographs made of several of his works in progress at times that he felt were important to a demonstration of his ideas). The assistant would simply come into the studio to help out in the mornings, and if the picture looked interesting he would shoot it. It is an outsider's interpretation of the process, which has its own objective value.

'There are almost no constant elements in the 5-by-4 foot picture during the months of its development. The hip shapes in the lower center, although changed in color and shape, remain as a dim point of focus almost throughout. The legs branch out at 90 degrees, then angle down parallel to the canvas edge in a rather froglike squat, which has its origin, of course, in M. Bertin by Ingres, one of de Kooning's great heroes. The figure is seated on a rocklike, or mound, form, which at first had a strange development into a half-face with a tilted mouth, then became the boxlike pedestal of a chair, and finally disappeared into paint whose directional strokes indicate that something solid is holding this very solid figure in position.

'As for the face, it appears to change in the photographs like a stop-action sequence of Spencer Tracy turning into Mr Hyde - only the Woman does not become hideous, just different. The head faces front, then to the left, then front again, then to the right; finally front with a tilt to the right. The hair goes from brunette to blond to red. Finally a hat is added. The mouth starts as a thin streak, slowly gapes open to reveal teeth, becomes closed and heavy in a pout, ends in an archaic smile. The shape of the head itself starts as an oval pushed in from the top and bottom; spreads out; then is elongated with the paint cutting deeply into the cheeks, and finally assumes a harlequin-diamond shape. Several times during this development, heavy masks of dark brown cover the features.

'But the most dramatic changes are in the arms. They start out raised and spread outward from the elbows behind the Woman's head. At one point the arm on the left side of the picture appears down across the torso, ending in a large red hand. The right arm extends to the right edge in a hand with pointing fingers. It finally is moved down, to give more room to the right side of the painting, where the critical problem is being worked out.

'At first, at the right, the artist sketched in a blocky tree-shape. This was soon wiped out and replaced, first by the Woman's hand, then by very active abstract-landscape forms, which slowly evolved into the face of a second figure. After this decision, the face stayed in the upper right-hand corner, until it was effaced again by a mass of flesh-color. Then the face came back in a rough drawing, with lowered eyelids, pointed nose, and rouged lips, all on green. The final resolution is a shape which could be the raised hand of the central figure or a face (there are indications of an eye in the opening of the fist).

'Thus The Visit may refer to the appearance of the second figure in the painting and its ultimate destruction, or to the possibility that the second figure is still there, visiting the Woman, but partially hidden by her hand. Or, the Woman, with her arms akimbo in a welcoming gesture, may be greeting a visitor who is entering her field of vision from just over the right shoulder of the spectator.

'For what it is worth, the photographs record the appearance of the Visitor and that she was shy, humble, hesitant in front of the Woman, whose own expressions of, as they changed, serenity, erotic invitation, rage, sorrow, and a quizzical triumph always made her the dominant partner.

'The landscape elements are kept abstract, indicating only a place in the countryside, but between the two figures a strong shape is developed, which is a tree or a rock but which echoes the Woman's shapes and partakes of her compelling organic strength.'

Five stages from the photographic record of 'The Visit' in progress are reproduced on pp.34-5 of Hess' book.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.397-8, reproduced p.397

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