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The Processes and Materials of Abstract Expressionist Painting

Discover the innovative tecniques of Abstract Expressionist painters


Woman, I

Willem de Kooning
(American, born the Netherlands. 1904–1997)

1952. Oil on canvas, 6' 3 7/8" x 58" (192.7 x 147.3 cm)

Willem de Kooning spent almost two years working intermittently on Woman, I, making numerous preliminary studies. He reworked the painting repeatedly, scratching the image, sanding it down, and painting over what he had worked on the day before. The hulking, wild-eyed subject draws upon an amalgam of female archetypes, from Paleolithic fertility goddesses to contemporary pin-up girls. Her stare and ferocious grin are heightened by de Kooning’s aggressive brushwork and frantic-looking paint application.

“Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented,”de Kooning once said. Combining voluptuousness and menace, Woman, I might reflect the age-old cultural ambivalence about reverence for and fear of the power of the feminine. Others have critiqued de Kooning’s representation of women as ugly and crude, treating the female body as an object.

Marcia Brennan, Modernism’s Masculine Subjects: Matisse, the New York School, and Post-Painterly Abstraction (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), 72.

An artistic movement made up of American artists in the 1940s and 1950s, also known as the New York School, or more narrowly, action painting. Abstract Expressionism is usually characterized by large abstract painted canvases, although the movement also includes sculpture and other media.

Did You Know?
Although this painting seems raw and brutal in its handling of paint, de Kooning studied art at the Rotterdam Academy in Europe and was a master draftsman and sign painter before he turned to Abstract Expressionism.

Multimedia

LISTEN UP!
AUDIO: Why do some people object to de Kooning’s depictions of women? Former Curator John Elderfield details the mixed response to the Women paintings

SLIDESHOW: See visitor snapshots of Woman, I in the MoMA galleries. Contribute your photos of this work by uploading them to Flickr with the tag “MoMA woman I de kooning”.