The female more than the male, is prey to the species. Humanity has always tried to escape from its species’ destiny; with the invention of the tool, maintenance of life became activity and project for man, while motherhood left woman riveted to her body like the animal.
— Simone de Beauvoir, 1949
The landscape is in the Woman and there is Woman in the landscapes.
— Willem de Kooning, 1953
Since the birth of her daughter Natalya Hughes has been repainting Willem de Kooning’s Woman series from the early 1950s. For Hughes this sustained engagement with these fraught, iconic figures of modern art is a means of attending to the body, of thinking through what it means when there’s a body on the line. Especially the body of a woman. But it is important to her project that it is not just the woman’s body at stake here, that these paintings hinge on another body: the body of the artist, de Kooning’s body, which is manifestly there in the mordant, often frantic brushstrokes. He took more than two years to paint Woman I 1950–52, working and reworking the canvas in multiple iterations until the painting came undone, he scrubbed it and began again. That painting, and all the paintings in the series, is as much a record of his sustained, physical engagement with paint and surface as it is an image of Woman, as he might like to have it, or as Hughes insists, a woman.
The images of broad, looming figures that define de Kooning’s Woman series came at the apex of his expressionism — and the apex of abstract expressionism more broadly; Jackson Pollock’s spread in Life magazine was published in 1949, famously making explicit the body’s role in both the logic and making of his drip paintings. The women in de Kooning’s cubist constructions of the 1940s are elegant, almost remote. They are more careful in their abstraction, cerebral rather than physical. The idea that women’s bodies have been co-opted as occasions of male genius is by now well established, both in feminist art practice and feminist art history. This is how Rozika Parker and Griselda Pollock put it in 1981:
As female nude, woman is body, is nature opposed to male culture, which, in turn, is represented by the very act of transforming nature, that is, the female model or motif, into the ordered forms and colour of a cultural artefact, a work of art.
While the state of dress of de Kooning’s 1950s women is at times ambiguous, the paintings operate more as nude than portrait. In Woman III 1953, for example, a line bifurcates her thighs suggesting the hem of a skirt, but, as in all the paintings, her breasts are explicitly delineated in thick, rudimentary lines, and a crude triangle signals her pudenda. In Pollock and Parker’s view the artist asserts himself over woman through the transfiguration of her living body into the still, painted image of symbolic importance. The famous nudes of the canon — I’m thinking of Ingres, Titian, Botticelli, even Manet — share a certain still austerity with the earlier de Kooning women. This is gone by the 1950s. Woman V 1952-53, hacked out largely in broad, raw strikes of pink and red paint, is closer to Rembrandt’s Carcass of Beef (Flayed Ox) 1655 via Soutine, than Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque 1814 or Manet’s Olympia 1865. His 1950s women aren’t constrained in form and de Kooning’s body is no longer sheltered — so fully — by culture.
This seems to have caused de Kooning some anguish. It is as if the more his work came to hinge on his own unfettered, bodily encounter with the surface, the more he needed the women he painted to devolve into corporeality. At the same time as his marks and the body they register complicate the old binary terms of modern, transcendental subjectivity, he worked to maintain that very balance: mind-body, culture-nature, man-woman. Which is to say, as his body, the body of the artist, decidedly entered the scene of representation, de Kooning needed to make woman more body than ever. The women he produces in this period are anonymous, frequently referred to as grotesque; de Kooning himself said: “I prefer the grotesque. It’s more joyous.” They are more breast and bulk than anything else, their lipless mouths, bared teeth and outsized eyes crowd their diminutive heads.
For me the paintings aren’t sexist; they’re sexy—luscious, fleshy, wild life.
— Jerry Saltz to Mark Stevens, 2011
Who would you have him paint, Margaret Mead? ...Calling de Kooning misogynist is simpleminded. It’s for the finger waggers.
— Mark Stevens to Jerry Saltz, 2011
Discontent with the role the women play in de Kooning’s paintings, Hughes has been repainting this series in her own distinctive style, blending abstraction, figuration and decorative patterning to, as she puts it, “understand them and bring them into my own visual language, sympathetic to their status in the history of painting.” The figures remain familiar, but the coarse, painterly expressionism is superseded by Hughes’ clean, strategically ornamental vernacular. She meticulously reconstructs de Kooning’s women using fragments of designs either sourced from, or based on, 1950s fabrics — designs contemporary to the creation of the original paintings. This strategy works on the two bodies of de Kooning’s paintings in distinct ways: de Kooning is exiled and the woman’s representation transformed, made starker in the remaking.
Hughes’ interest in the Woman series is sustained, at least in part, by the uneasy power of the figures in the de Kooning paintings. Her project here is not to rescue them, but to bring them to the fore of our consideration. Down to the “sex doll” mouth in Woman 6 2019 and horrific mirrored grin in Woman With Electric Bicycle (After Julie) 2020, Hughes carefully retains both the iconography and forms of the de Kooning paintings, but forces a more direct confrontation with the women. De Kooning is so thoroughly inscribed in his paintings’ gestural abstraction that the viewer registers him, his strength and energy, as primary. In three paintings — Woman With Electric Bicycle (After Julie), Two Women in the Country and Bell Jar Woman (all 2020) Hughes allows the two forms of abstraction to tussle, layering her polished patterns over loose de Kooning-esque brush strokes. But for the most part she displaces this element of the original works to a number of tongue-in-cheek “gesture” paintings – paintings of photoshop generated squiggles. Stripping out de Kooning's marks but leaving in place the basic armature of his figuration, Hughes deprives the viewer of the opportunity to be swept up by the artist’s corporeal presence, asking that we attend with far greater focus to the women themselves.
The strange disjuncture between the crisp, cheerful, carefully delineated shapes that comprise Hughes’ women and the overall effect of their imposing figures compels us to contend with them, and to a certain extent, on their terms. Constructing them from the fragments of ‘50s fabric she deliberately uses a visual language associated with women’s clothing and the domestic – curtains, wallpaper, table cloths, etc. Limited though it was, she rebuilds de Kooning’s women from the dominion of their own power, drawing those derided visual systems (pattern, the decorative) into the hallowed sphere of mid-century abstraction, a famously masculinist enterprise.
The imagery in Two Women’s Torsos (Small) 2019-2020 includes some of the most challenging imagery in the show. Its source image was made in the summer of 1952, while de Kooning holidayed in East Hampton producing a number of pastels, including Two Women’s Torsos 1952. In Hughes’ version the composite forms of two headless bodies seem to tear through stylish wall paper of spiralling rectilinear shapes. The original is violently fragmented, de Kooning’s cubist roots apparent. The figure on the right has suffered a sever below the knees; in Hughes’ painting we see this figure’s lower left leg hanging, a slice of delicate pink, scarcely attached. A segment of design comprised of orange and burgundy triangles similarly floats free of the body to the left, where the same patterning makes up parts of both leg and torso. These amputations are emphasised by Hughes’s clean lines, acting as surrogates for the women’s decapitated heads. Quoting de Kooning back to himself, Hughes makes us see them as maimed.
When the abstract artist grows tired, he becomes an interior decorator.
Clement Greenberg, 1941
The work in Maybe I was painting the woman inside me is serious and critical, but it is also searingly funny. Intent on making her women comfortable, Hughes has introduced furniture into the work, something she has done previously, including for The After Party, her 2012 installation for Contemporary Australia: Women at the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art. The After Party was a “perverted parlour room” involving heavily patterned wallpaper – badgers, tacos and fleshy, labial blooms – and a dinner table, upholstered and over-stuffed. In this show, a number of the paintings are displayed on the floor, propped up on bronzed, double ended dildos (à la Lynda Benglis’ 1974 Artforum advertisement) like the feet of clawfoot tubs. She has also had two bronzey stands fabricated, inspired by 1950s magazine racks. Free standing, each holds a painting, precise and incisive, behind which is affixed a textile panel. Woman IV (Eileen from Kings Point) 2019, named for Hughes’ paternal grandmother, is backed with a quartered patchwork stretched taught, but from which protrude two impressively pendulous forms. Weighted with casts scaled to Hughes’ own breasts, they hit the ground like balled fists. The verso of Woman VI (Harmony) 2019 is a de Kooning woman as quilt, and cushion, her exaggerated breasts are stuffed, pillowy, carefully supported by the structure of the stand like an underwire.
If Hughes’ intervenes in the bodies of de Kooning’s Woman series —making confrontations with the bodies of the women and distancing de Kooning’s body – she also makes us attentive to our own bodies, and our bodies as relational. These soft, sculptural forms stand to meet us. They are seductive or mildly imposing, but either way they body forth a kind of encounter. In this element of the work Hughes draws from the lessons of post-minimalism, making this explicit in her rude versions of Benglis’ knots. As if one of the photoshopped scrawls from the “gesture” paintings has come to life, in Gesture (Sausage) 3 2020 a long, stuffed fabric tube tipped with a bronze dildo jumps from the wall like Eva Hesse’s Hang Up 1966, reaching out to the viewer as if to catch them.
 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, Vintage Books, 2011, 77
John Elderfield and David Frankel eds., De Kooning: A Retrospective, The Museum of Modern Art, 2011, 281
De Kooning: A Retrospective, 247
 Rozika Parker and Griselda Pollock, Old mistresses: Women, Art, and Ideology, Pantheon Books, 1982, 119
 Willem de Kooning quoted in Mark Stevens, “Why de Kooning Matters”, interview by Jerry Saltz, New York Magazine, August 2011, https://nymag.com/guides/fallpreview/2011/art/de-kooning-retrospective/
 Stevens, interview.
 Natalya Hughes, Artist Statement, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2018, https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/prizes/sulman/2018/29988/
 De Kooning: A Retrospective, 243
 Clement Greenberg, “Review of Exhibitions of Joan Miro, Fernand Leger, and Wassily Kandinsky” in The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 1: Perceptions and Judgments, University of Chicago Press, 1988, 64.