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de Kooning, Woman I

Willem de Kooning's "Woman I" painting is a return to figurative art, featuring an abstract, disfigured female figure. The painting, layered with multiple works, sparks debates about misogyny and the representation of women in post-World War II culture. De Kooning's unique style blends sculptural and calligraphic elements.

Willem de Kooning, Woman I, oil on canvas, 1950-52 (MoMA) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker.
Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(lively piano music) Voiceover: We're on the fourth floor of MoMA, looking at Willem de Kooning's "Woman I" from 1950-52. Voiceover: Is there a "Woman II?" Voiceover: There is, and a III, and "Woman and Bicycle" and "Marilyn Monroe," and it's a whole series. Voiceover: Whole series. Voiceover: Of his return to the figure. De Kooning had been trained in, where was it, Rotterdam? Voiceover: Yeah. Voiceover: And he trained as a traditional classical artist, that figure was really important to him. Before this, he had done a whole series of abstract paintings, and this was really his return. Voiceover: She's really ugly-looking. Voiceover: Yeah. Voiceover: Hard not to see this as misogynist. Voiceover: Yeah, yeah. Voiceover: Yeah, that's usually people's first reaction. to make that interpretation. Voiceover: But what justifies the interpretation first? You've got an emphasis on ... Voiceover: Her breasts. Voiceover: On her breasts, on her eyes, on her mouth, on her legs. Voiceover: Yeah. Voiceover: But she is also skull-like, and she's also disfigured, Voiceover: And there's male gestural marks all over the female body. Voiceover: My favorite museum text panel talked about de Kooning as a muscular painter. Voiceover: Yeah. Voiceover: And I just stood here and made this gesture of ... Voiceover: He really does push paint around wonderfully, but it does have an aggressive kind of ... This is the origin of the term "action painting" really, right? Voiceover: Yeah. It looks that way. Voiceover: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, Rosenberg was one his great defenders, the critic, Harold Rosenberg. There had been a whole bunch of readings, and this painting is so layered. First of all, basically, it's physically layered. De Kooning was at a moment in his career when he was not really thinking that he would be selling these figurative paintings. What he was doing was he was painting on them until they would begin to fall apart. That is, he just worked them and worked them and worked them to death, and then he would wipe them down and start over again on the same canvas. Voiceover: Just as a place to work out ideas. Voiceover: According to some of his friends at this time, this canvas had some 60, 70, maybe even 80 paintings on it. Voiceover: Wow. Voiceover: Before, apparently, he was convinced - of course this is the telling of one of his friends - that he should stop and let the painting be and change canvases. But this is a painting that's also layered not only in terms of the paint, but it's also layered in terms of the way in which people look at it. Some people read it as really misogynist, and then some people say no, no, no, this is a more critical look at the post-World War II pinup, the culture of, the beginning of our culture of pornography, of the acceptance of pornography and the way that women are represented. It sounds a little apologist to me, but ... Voiceover: Well, I think it's easy to ... It's a little too easy to say when an artist makes a female figure who looks ... When a male artist makes a female figure who looks, to our eyes, as ugly, Voiceover: That it's an anti- ... Voiceover: ... misogynist. Voiceover: And it's probably a good idea not to do that because for example, that charge is leveled to Degas, and I don't think he was misogynist in the way that those images are interpreted at all. Voiceover: Yeah. Perhaps more racist, perhaps more classist (laughs). Voiceover: Or just breaking away from certain ideas of the nude. Voiceover: Oh absolutely. So is that what's happening here then? Voiceover: Well, I don't know. in a sense, reinvent the way that we can begin to depict the body? Voiceover: He's a little bit "Venus of Willendorf-y." Voiceover: She is. Voiceover: But at the same time, curiously, even as it's sculptural on that sense, it's also a kind of calligraphic figure, right? I mean it's really rendered with this incredibly wonderful line. (lively piano music)