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: Abstraction, Representation, and Reinvention
“What you do when you paint, you take a brush full of paint, get paint on the picture, and you have fate.”1 So declared Willem de Kooning (American, born The Netherlands, 1904–1997), an Abstract Expressionist artist, celebrated for his exuberant paintings and vivid compositions, in which he often merged abstraction and representation. Over the course of a career that lasted nearly seven decades, he experimented continuously, shifting his style to explore new techniques and forms of expression. Such regular reinvention led to a body of paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures characterized by boldness and innovation. As the artist once said: “Art should not have to be a certain way.”2
Underlying all of de Kooning’s work, even his most abstract paintings, was a foundation in draftsmanship and commercial production. He trained in both fine and commercial art at the Rotterdam Academy in The Netherlands and worked as a sign painter, while making his early paintings and drawings in a more academic style. In 1926, the adventurous young artist stowed away on a British ship bound for the United States, skirted immigration, and moved to New York City, where the Jazz Age was in full swing. He fell under the sway of the improvisatory, lyrical freedom of jazz music and the abstract art made by other artists under its influence. New York also brought him into contact with the work of Henri Matisse and Giorgio de Chirico and with contemporaries including Stuart Davis and Arshile Gorky, with whom he developed a particularly close and mutually inspiring friendship.
The Great Depression of the 1930s brought the Jazz Age to a crashing end. As a part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) program, designed to relieve rising unemployment, de Kooning was commissioned to design public murals. Though his studies for the murals were never realized, they were among his first abstractions, and his experience working on this project spurred him to pursue art making full-time.
By the 1940s, with the world embroiled in World War II and the center of creativity shifting from Paris to New York City, de Kooning had come to prominence as an artist. Although he frequently worked in an abstract style throughout the course of his career—exploring, for example, biomorphic shapes, gesture, abstracted landscapes, and pared-down forms—he continually returned to the figure. The female figure was an especially fertile subject for the artist, whose paintings of women were among his most controversial works during his lifetime and remain much discussed to this day.
A “Joyous” Grotesque: Willem de Kooning’s Woman, I (1950–52)
In 1953, The Museum of Modern Art acquired a new painting, one that prompted its collection committee to state: “The Committee found the picture quite frightening, but felt that it had intense vitality and liked the quality of the color.”3 The picture in question was Willem de Kooning’s Woman, I (1950–52). Though it was one of a series of six oil-on-canvas paintings centered upon a single female figure that de Kooning had worked on from 1950 to 1953, Woman, I received the most attention. The first work in this series, it seems to embody the artist’s claim: “Beauty becomes petulant to me. I like the grotesque. It’s more joyous.”4
When de Kooning began to paint Woman, I, abstraction was dominant in American art. Artists and critics had declared the human figure to be an obsolete subject, and de Kooning himself was enjoying acclaim for the abstract compositions he had been producing over the previous years. Many of his peers saw Woman, I as a betrayal, a regression back to an outmoded tradition. The painting also subjected him to accusations of misogyny, as viewers perceived his portrayal of its female subject to be menacing, objectifying, and violent. For de Kooning, however, this was a continuation of his earlier explorations of the human figure and an opportunity to further experiment with the wide-ranging methods of applying paint to canvas.
The surface of Woman, I presents an almost encyclopedic display of the physical possibilities of paint, ranging from thick to thin, rough to smooth, and opaque to translucent. De Kooning prepared huge quantities of paint for this project, altering colors and textures continuously during the nearly two years he spent working on the composition. Although it may appear rapidly and intuitively executed, it is the result of many preliminary studies, numerous painting sessions, the scraping down and re-painting of entire sections, and extended consideration by the artist.
At the center of this six-feet-high by five-feet-wide painting sits the woman of its title: a figure composed of an amalgam of sweeping brushstrokes in hues of white, gray, yellow, orange, green, blue, and pink. Rough black outlines incompletely distinguish her form from the vigorous brushstrokes surrounding her. Broad-shouldered and ample-bosomed, she faces forward, with wide-open eyes taking up almost a third of her face and a virtually lipless mouth bearing long teeth. Despite such heft, she appears flattened out, pressed up against the painting’s surface.
De Kooning once summarized the history of female representations as “the idol, the Venus, the nude.”5 In Woman, I, he both alludes to and subverts such conventions, while possibly referencing the long-held societal ambivalence between reverence for and fear of the feminine.
Among the most famous of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, formed to relieve unemployment during The Great Depression. The WPA ran from 1935 to 1943 and employed millions of people, including artists, to carry out public works projects across the United States.
The goddess of love and beauty in Roman mythology; a very beautiful woman.
Expressing deep personal emotion or observations; highly enthusiastic, rhapsodic.
The period in American history between World Wars I and II, particularly the 1920s, characterized especially by the rising popularity of jazz and by the open pursuit of social pleasures.
An image used as an object of worship; one that is adored, often blindly or excessively.
A particular gradation of color; a shade or tint.
Of or relating to the conservative style of art promoted by an official academy.
Characterized by ludicrous, repulsive, or incongruous distortion, as of appearance or manner; ugly, outlandish, or bizarre, as in character or appearance.
One who applies paint to canvas, wood, paper, or another support to produce a picture.
A paint in which pigment is suspended in oil, which dries on exposure to air.
A three-dimensional work of art made by a variety of means, including carving wood, chiseling stone, casting or welding metal, molding clay or wax, or assembling materials.
A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).
A representation of a human or animal form in a work of art.
A work of art made with a pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, or other implements, often consisting of lines and marks (noun); the act of producing a picture with pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, or other implements (verb, gerund).
Cotton or linen woven cloth used as a surface for painting.
Permitting the passage of light.
The method with which an artist, writer, performer, athlete, or other producer employs technical skills or materials to achieve a finished product or endeavor.
The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.
A distinctive or characteristic manner of expression.
The form or condition in which an object exists or appears.
The visual portrayal of someone or something.
A term describing a wide variety of techniques used to produce multiple copies of an original design. Also, the resulting text or image made by applying inked characters, plates, blocks, or stamps to a support such as paper or fabric.
Impenetrable to the passage of light.
The natural landforms of a region; also, an image that has natural scenery as its primary focus.
A category of artistic practice having a particular form, content, or technique.
The shape or structure of an object.
A facial aspect indicating an emotion; also, the means by which an artist communicates ideas and emotions.
A person who draws plans or designs, often of structures to be built; a person who draws skillfully, especially an artist.
The arrangement of the individual elements within a work of art so as to form a unified whole; also used to refer to a work of art, music, or literature, or its structure or organization.
The perceived hue of an object, produced by the manner in which it reflects or emits light into the eye. Also, a substance, such as a dye, pigment, or paint, that imparts a hue.
Derived from the Greek words bios (life) and morphe (form), a term referring to abstract forms or images that evoke associations with living forms such as plants and the human body.
The process of creating art that is not representational or based on external reality or nature.
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.
A term generally used to describe art that is not representational or based on external reality or nature.
From Trash to Treasure
Woman, I was an enormously difficult project for de Kooning. At one point, he discarded the painting in an attempt to put an end to his struggles once and for all—until several weeks later he retrieved the canvas and took up its challenge again.
Flesh and Paint
The first known use of oil paint is dated to the 12th century, in Northern Europe. A vastly more versatile paint than anything that had been utilized before, it allowed artists to capture the nuances of the world around them—especially light, shadow, and texture—with remarkable accuracy. De Kooning worked almost exclusively in oil, and he once famously commented on its particular affinity to skin, declaring: “Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented.”6
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
AUDIO: Hear more about the form of Woman, I from Former Curator John Elderfield and directly from de Kooning about his fascination with mouths
AUDIO: Chief Curator Ann Temkin discusses de Kooning’s choice of subject and challenges