Viewing Willem de Kooning’s Woman I is an arresting experience. Drawing inspiration from woman in all her forms, from Paleolithic fertility goddesses to American billboard bombshells, de Kooning presents us with a powerful image that is both intimidating and intriguing. As de Kooning himself said, “Beauty becomes petulant to me. I like the grotesque. It’s more joyous.” In this article, Singulart discusses de Kooning’s Women series, with a focus on Woman I, and examines the action painting technique de Kooning employed.
De Kooning’s Women series
Although the women de Kooning painted range from slightly bizarre looking to downright terrifying, he did not, as many believed, have a problem with women. Quite the opposite, in fact; he saw himself as a champion of women, and did not see himself as a misogynist.
Journalist James Fitzsimmons wrote in Art magazine that de Kooning was involved “in a terrible struggle with the female force… a bloody hand to hand combat [with a] female personification of all that is unacceptable, perverse and infantile in ourselves.” De Kooning responded by stating, “Certain artists and critics attacked me for painting the Women, but I felt that was their problem, not mine.”
He would later clarify, “Maybe in that earlier phase I was painting the woman in me. Art isn’t a wholly masculine occupation, you know. I’m aware that some critics would take this to be an admission of latent homosexuality. If I painted beautiful women, would that make me a nonhomosexual? I like beautiful women. In the flesh; even the models in the magazines. Women irritate me sometimes. I painted that irritation in the Women series. That’s all.”
Woman I took almost two years to complete, and was almost destroyed numerous times. De Kooning took an unusually long time to prepare for Woman I, making numerous preliminary sketches and constantly painting over the image on the canvas. His wife Elaine stated that he painted over 200 versions of the woman on the same canvas, scraping each one away in dissatisfaction. De Kooning abandoned the artwork in 1952, only restarting the work after an encouraging visit with art historian Meyer Schapiro.
This woman is at once familiar and grotesquely overexaggerated, with huge eyes, a menacing smile, and distorted limbs. De Kooning explained, “[Woman I] did one thing for me: it eliminated composition, arrangement, relationships, light, because that [motif] was the one thing I wanted to get hold of. I thought I might as well stick to the idea that it’s got two eyes, a nose and mouth and neck.”
The woman sits gazing unflinchingly at the viewer, aware of the power that she has. She has been described as an archetypal figure rather than an individual woman, due to the ambiguity of her features and her massive size.
For Woman I, de Kooning worked with a color palette of orange, yellow, green and blue, painted onto the canvas in angular, frenzied strokes in multiple directions. The paint has been applied to the canvas in a variety of ways, almost in every conceivable way it can be used: in thick and thin strokes, at times almost translucent and at other times heavily applied, rough in some parts and smooth in others.
The artwork was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 1953, with the committee stating, “[they] found the picture quite frightening, but felt that it had intense vitality and liked the quality of the color.”
The term ‘action painting’ was coined by Harold Rosenberg in 1952. An alternative to abstract expressionism, action painting emphasized the revolutionary nature of the artist’s decision to paint. The term also included the fact that the artworks that used action painting were often imperfect, with hurried, frenzied brushstrokes and paint spilling onto the canvas. The work is deliberate, but indelicate, incorporating painting techniques different from the traditional hand and wrist.
One of the most famous examples of action painting is the work of Jackson Pollock. Pollock would sometimes step directly onto his canvas, flicking paint onto the canvas with various tools. In de Kooning’s case, the vigorous brushstrokes show the raw emotion that has gone into the canvas.
De Kooning described his compulsion to paint in 2002: “It’s really absurd to make an image, like a human image, with paint today, when you think about it, since we have this problem of doing or not doing it. But then all of a sudden it was even more absurd not to do it. So I fear that I’ll have to follow my desires.”