De Kooning’s eclectic, experimental approach to painting wasn’t always admired by his peers. “No single image represents his style or characterizes his career as do, for example, the poured paintings of
and the abstracted topographies of
,” Lake explained in Willem de Kooning: The Artist’s Materials
He boldly blended styles—figuration and abstraction, most notably—a practice that was anathema to the era’s traditional and progressive critics. “Conservative critics complained about the artist’s attempt to mix painterly abstraction and expressionist figuration,” while “champions of ‘advanced’ art attacked de Kooning for his conservative return to figure painting,” Lake continued.
But the painter remained staunchly committed to hybridization. “Even abstract shapes must have a likeness,” he once said
Several times, de Kooning refused to become an official member of American Abstract Artists, an organization that would have restricted his use of figuration. In a statement accompanying his black-and-white canvas Painting (1948), an abstract composition incorporating elements of figurative drawings, he conveyed his disdain for blindly following a single style or movement: “I’m not interested in ‘abstracting’ or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line, and color,” he wrote. “I paint this way because I can keep putting more and more things in—drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space.”
In 1960, Sylvester asked de Kooning about the reaction he received, upon embedding recognizable imagery into abstraction. The painter responded bluntly and resolutely: “They attacked me for that, certain artists and critics. But I felt this was their problem, not mine.…I fear that I’ll have to follow my desires.”