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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.” The picture in question was Willem de Kooning’s Woman I (1950–1952). 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.”

Willem de Kooning (* 24 April 1904 in Rotterdam; † 19 March 1997 in East Hampton, Long Island, New York) was a Dutch painter who became an American painter in 1962. He was one of the most important representatives of abstract expressionism and, along with Jackson Pollock, is considered a pioneer of action painting. In the years after World War II, de Kooning painted in a style that came to be referred to as abstract expressionism or "action painting", and was part of a group of artists that came to be known as the New York School. Other painters in this group included Jackson Pollock, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann, Nell Blaine, Adolph Gottlieb, Anne Ryan, Robert Motherwell, Philip Guston, Clyfford Still, and Richard Pousette-Dart. De Kooning's retrospective held at MoMA in 2011–2012 made him one of the best-known artists of the 20th century.

*1904-1997

Willem de Kooning

MORE FROM THIS ARTIST

Oil on canvas, 192,7 x 147,3 cm
 Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA
 Giraudon © Bridgeman Images
 Willem de Kooning © The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Bildrecht, Wien 2021

237 | Woman I (Frau I), 1950-1952

Various materials on canvas (Verschiedene Materialien auf Leinwand), 109,0 x 126,0 cm 
 Museum of Contemporary Art, Teheran, Iran
 © akg-images
 Willem de Kooning © The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Bildrecht, Wien 2021

238 | Police Gazette, 1955

Oil on canvas, 200,0 x 175,0 cm
 Privat Collection
 © akg-images / André Held
 Willem de Kooning © The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Bildrecht, Wien 2021

239 | Interchange (Austausch), 1955

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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.

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