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
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