“Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented,” de Kooning once remarked, and although he painted many abstractions he continually returned to the figure. Woman I took him an unusually long time to complete: he made numerous preliminary studies, then repainted the canvas repeatedly, eventually arriving at this figure of a woman, the first of a series. Some saw the painting as a betrayal, a regression to an outmoded figurative tradition. Others have called it misogynistic, understanding it as objectifying and violent. De Kooning himself said, however, “Beauty becomes petulant to me. I like the grotesque. It’s more joyous.”
Gallery label from Collection 1940s—1970s, 2019
Woman I is the first in the group of Woman paintings that de Kooning began in 1950. The works are influenced by sources ranging from Paleolithic fertility fetishes to American billboard advertisements, and the attributes of this particular figure seem to include both the vengeful power of the goddess and the hollow seductiveness of the calendar pinup. Rejecting traditional representations of women, which he summarized as “the idol, the Venus, the nude,” de Kooning painted a figure with gigantic eyes, massive breasts, and a toothy grin. Her threatening stare and ferocious smile are heightened by the artist’s aggressive brushwork and frenetic application of paint. Her body is outlined in thick and thin black lines, which continue in loops and streaks and drips, taking on a life of their own. Abrupt, angular strokes of orange, blue, yellow, and green piled up in multiple directions as layers of color were applied, scraped away, and restored. De Kooning took an unusually long time to complete this work, making numerous preliminary studies and repainting it repeatedly.
In the early 1950s, artists and critics championing abstraction had declared the human figure obsolete in painting. Instead of abandoning the figure, however, de Kooning revisited this age-old subject through the sweeping brushwork of Abstract Expressionism, the prevailing contemporary style. He famously declared, “Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented.”
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)