Willem de Kooning. Woman, I. 1950–52
Willem de Kooning

Woman, I

1950–52
On view
Medium
Oil on canvas
Dimensions
6' 3 7/8" x 58" (192.7 x 147.3 cm)
Credit
Purchase
Object number
478.1953
Copyright
© 2015 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Department
Painting and Sculpture

De Kooning took an unusually long time to create Woman, I, making numerous preliminary studies and repainting the work repeatedly. The hulking, wild–eyed subject draws upon an amalgam of female archetypes, from Paleolithic fertility goddesses to contemporary pin–up girls. Her threatening stare and ferocious grin are heightened by de Kooning's aggressive brushwork and frantic paint application. Combining voluptuousness and menace, Woman, I reflects the age–old cultural ambivalence between reverence for and fear of the power of the feminine.

Gallery label from 2006

Additional text

De Kooning famously said, "Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented," and although he often worked in an abstract style he continually returned to the figure. Woman, I took an unusually long time to complete. De Kooning made numerous preliminary studies then repainted the canvas repeatedly, eventually arriving at this hulking, wild-eyed figure of a woman. An amalgam of female archetypes, from a Paleolithic fertility goddess to a 1950s pinup girl, her threatening gaze and ferocious grin are heightened by de Kooning’s aggressive brushwork and intensely colored palette.

Gallery label from Abstract Expressionist New York, October 3, 2010–April 25, 2011

Woman, I is the first in a series of de Kooning works on the theme of Woman. The group is influenced by images ranging from Paleolithic fertility fetishes to American billboards, and the attributes of this particular figure seem to range from the vengeful power of the goddess to the hollow seductiveness of the calendar pinup. Reversing traditional female representations, which he summarized as "the idol, the Venus, the nude," de Kooning paints a woman with gigantic eyes, massive breasts, and a toothy grin. Her body is outlined in thick and thin black lines, which continue in loops and streaks and drips, taking on an independent life of their own. Abrupt, angular strokes of orange, blue, yellow, and green pile up in multiple directions as layers of color are applied, scraped away, and restored.

When de Kooning painted Woman, I, artists and critics championing abstraction had declared the human figure obsolete in painting. Instead of abandoning the figure, however, de Kooning readdressed this age-old subject through the sweeping brushwork of Abstract Expressionism, the prevailing contemporary style. Does the woman partake of the brushwork's energy to confront us aggressively? Or is she herself under attack, nearly obliterated by the welter of violent marks? Perhaps something of both; and, in either case, she remains powerful and intimidating.

Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999

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Related links:
Outside North America: Scala Archives
North America: Art Resource

Image permissions

In order to effectively service requests for images, The Museum of Modern Art entrusts the licensing of images of works of art in its collections to the agencies Scala Archives and Art Resource. As MoMA’s representatives, these agencies supply high-resolution digital image files provided to them directly by the Museum's imaging studios.

All requests to reproduce works of art from MoMA's collection within North America (Canada, U.S., Mexico) should be addressed directly to Art Resource at 536 Broadway, New York, New York 10012. Telephone (212) 505-8700; fax (212) 505-2053; requests@artres.com; artres.com. Requests from all other geographical locations should be addressed directly to Scala Group S.p.A., 62, via Chiantigiana, 50012 Bagno a Ripoli/Firenze, Italy. Telephone 39 055 6233 200; fax 39 055 641124; firenze@scalarchives.com; scalarchives.com.

Requests for permission to reprint text from MoMA publications should be addressed to text_permissions@moma.org.

Related links:
Outside North America: Scala Archives
North America: Art Resource