Willem de Kooning, Woman, I

Willem de Kooning, Woman, I, 1950–52, oil on canvas, 192.7 x 147.3 cm (The Museum of Modern Art) © The Willem de Kooning Foundation

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, looking at Willem de Kooning’s “Woman, I,” from 1950-52.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:13] This painting took a long time to paint. De Kooning worked on it over a number of years, and that’s really evident when we look at the surface of the painting, which looks like layers and layers of different textures of paint, some thin and drippy, some thick and matte.

Dr. Zucker: [0:29] In fact, some of his friends when they spoke about this painting remember that de Kooning actually had worked on a whole series of images of a woman on this same canvas, and would work on it until the painting fell apart. Then he would basically wipe it away and start over again. So his objective was not a finished product.

Dr. Harris: [0:47] But instead, process. The quickness of the brushstrokes, which are so visible, imply the painting was made quickly.

Dr. Zucker: [0:54] The brushwork is almost calligraphic and muscular and tough. The paint is thick. Look at the colors that he’s using. They are so garish. And as if the brilliant pinks and orange and yellows up against muddy passages of flesh tones wasn’t enough, he’s also put a border of silver on the right side.

Dr. Harris: [1:14] The colors seem to be intentionally difficult. Those fleshy, pinky, peachy tones, but also olive green that feels really dissonant.

Dr. Zucker: [1:23] Willem de Kooning is one of the central Abstract Expressionists. He was friends with Jackson Pollock. He was spending time with Mark Rothko. Yet, here’s a man who goes back to the human figure.

[1:33] And large-scale seated female figure goes all the way back in the history of art to the Madonna. This is sacred art that has been brought into the 20th century and made profane.

Dr. Harris: [1:44] And commercial. The eyes, the emphasis on her breasts, I start to see the relationship to images of pin-up girls — sexualized images of women with thick lipstick, teeth showing, and wide grins, and mascara, and eyeliner.

Dr. Zucker: [1:59] It’s such an interesting moment in American history. GIs coming back from the war. The representation of the woman either on the silver screen, on a movie poster.

Dr. Harris: [2:08] Taking on the sexualized, eroticized images of women, she comes forward toward us. She’s overwhelming in her size. She fills up the canvas.

Dr. Zucker: [2:17] It’s important to remember that Willem de Kooning was one of the few artists of the Abstract Expressionist generation that had been trained in a very traditional way.

Dr. Harris: [2:25] He could draw as well as any academically-trained artist going back to the 19th century.

Dr. Zucker: [2:30] It’s about finding an art that is still meaningful in a sea of reproductive technologies, where visual images are bombarding us. It’s about what the tradition of the figure means in an art world that has turned to abstraction.

Dr. Harris: [2:42] I find myself looking at the figure and trying to find it. Where is her right arm? Does it hang down by her side? Does it come across her lap? Where are her legs, where are her thighs?

Dr. Zucker: [2:54] He’s constructing that body for us, but he’s also refusing to allow it to exist in any coherent way. Given a kind of abstract field, how do we populate that with the human figure? Where does she exist?

[3:06] Part of the tension is that the painting is essentially an abstract field. If he had pushed the painting a little bit further and the figure had dissolved, it’s the abstract field of the canvas that would have asserted itself and precluded the space for the figure to exist.

[3:21] This is a painting right on the edge, where the figure is still able to maintain itself in space, even given the hazards of the abstraction in which she exists.

Dr. Harris: [3:30] There is something about that space between abstraction and figuration that has to do with the fact that this is a male artist painting a female figure. She’s overwhelming.

Dr. Zucker: [3:41] De Kooning has taken the desire of the male viewer for the pin-up, for the commercialized female figure in contemporary visual culture, and used that as a kind of fuel for this painting.

Dr. Harris: [3:52] The paint is aggressive and energetic. Her eyes are bulging. Her teeth are bared. There is aggression in this painting.

Dr. Zucker: [4:01] This was improvisation. This was a kind of experimentation. This was a kind of discovery. It is this contemporary representation of the female figure, it is also about how that work is made.

[4:12] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Willem de Kooning, Woman, I," in Smarthistory, October 8, 2016, accessed July 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/de-k-woman/.