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.
Curator, Ann Temkin: This painting is called Woman, I and it has the number after it because ultimately there were six such large-scale paintings of single women that de Kooning worked on in the 1950s.
The woman of the painting is staring out at the viewer with a kind of ferocity and a kind of toothy glare that makes her anything but a typical seductress or muse that one might think of in terms of the hundreds of years of paintings of female subjects. This is a painting that he began after having worked in an abstract mode over the last few years. And having received very wonderful critical acclaim for the abstract paintings he made. He had, however, been painting the figure—and particularly the female figure—in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and at this time he decided to go back to it.
And so de Kooning's big challenge was how to use the power of paint to again give some meaning to creating the image of a human figure on a canvas. And if what you see on the canvas before you has the feel or the look of something like a battlefield, there's a good reason, because indeed, this is a picture that de Kooning struggled and struggled with.
He worked for months and months over a year-and-a-half, making, paintings, one on top of the other, scratching them, sanding them down, getting rid of the image that he had worked on the day before. The look of it is very much of something in progress, something that has not come to some kind of comfortable resolution or conclusion, but something which is still in a bit of a state of war.
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.
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.