de Kooning’s Women

Woman IV, (1952-1953), oil-enamel and charcoal on canvas, 59 x 46 1/4 in

Many articles have been written about “de Kooning: A Retrospective” at MoMA, as you would expect for such a huge survey of this Modern and prolific master who has held a rather awkward place in art history. Seeing many of his works for the first time and seeing them as a woman, I was particularly struck by the violence to the female form in his series of Woman portraits from the 1950s.

Woman V, (1952-53), oil and charcoal on canvas, 154.5 x 114.5 cm

Not that violence was mentioned on any of the wall plaques at MoMA, where the chronological exhibition methodically shows de Kooning moving away from realism and toward abstraction. His style shifts from early works to the women, to big, bold thickly painted abstractions to light spirals of colored abstractions, spanning the course of his career. His colors are garish, lush, putrid even. You can see throughout his work how he substitutes color for line and form. Each is bigger and bolder than the next, and his figurative women are an alternative narrative that do not fit into the overall progression. His woman paintings remained notoriously and controversially too realistic for many contemporary critics who preferred his cutting edge abstraction to these figurative works.

Woman VI, (1953), oil on canvas, 68 1/2 x 58 1/2 in

Viewing the women with fresh eyes, in chronological order and all together, I watched as de Kooning kept to a pattern that gradually flattened them into the wall. Here we have this Modern Master take a seated woman and transform her, again and again. Taking her and painting her with more violence, as more monstrous, as less and less human until she merges with the picture plane itself. She becomes breasts and teeth among color splashes, nothing more. She looks as if she would bite. The merge of the subject with the picture plane is the artist’s achievement in this series, but that is not my point. Why was this depiction of the female necessary, not just for de Kooning, but among the great Modern male painters like Picasso? Why do these male painters do such violence to the female form? Why not the male form? Why not an un-gendered form? But it is in fact an aggressively gendered form, both in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and in de Kooning’s women. The only thing left is breasts and teeth.

Woman I, (1950-52), oil on canvas, 39 7/8 x 58 in

I am not the first to see misogyny in de Kooning’s women, who become all harsh lines, distorted shapes, and exaggerated breasts and teeth. At the time they were exhibited, these paintings;

shocked many feminists, who interpreted his colliding brushstrokes as a gesture of violence toward the female body.” (Claude Cernuschi)

This view remained prevalent among feminist critics in the 1960s and 1970s who spoke about the trope of aggressive masculine sexuality and the monstrosity of the female subject matter in Woman I de Kooning himself compared these works to archetypal representations of women such as the fleshy, generalized female figure of the Venus of Willendorf.

Venus of Wilendorf, (24,000 B.C.E. – 22,000 B.C.E.), Oolitic limestone

In naming this series of paintings by numbering them, de Kooning reinforces the notion that they are meant to be representative of the female rather than an individual. Indeed, female characteristics like breasts are often all that is left clearly recognizable. Underlying the violence they cite, feminist critics also point out that it is the woman as subject, meant to be looked at and acted upon, which he is tearing to shreds with his paint.

Women, (1949), oil on canvas, 64 1/8 x 46 in

These paintings are arguably more dehumanizing than pornography, which is at least honest and often less violent. Here this negative attitude toward the feminine is obscured under the sheen of art. Why are these images generally accepted without question, as I believe they are today as much as the time they were painted in? If a woman or a man, then or today, took the male form and savagely ripped it apart in her/his images, nothing but men’s genitalia and teeth, we would write about the artist’s feminism, wonder what past personal episode made her /him so angry, or perhaps shudder at the horribleness of it. Why don’t we have the same reaction to this? But to do violence to the female form is standard, de rigueur, and as a society we are blind to it. We do not question it. We say de Kooning took the traditional portrait of seated women and treated it innovatively and created masterpieces. But there is so much more that could be said.

De Kooning: A Retrospective at MoMA


Linnea West writes about contemporary art, culture, and travel–all subjects she feels passionately about. She lives in New York City–except for those times when wanderlust gets the better of her. This happens often. Fortunately her laptop travels well. She is finishing her first novel.

One response to “de Kooning’s Women”

  1. mfm says:

    great essay, raises questions that we seem to assume have been laid to rest simply because the artist is a canonical figure. The paintings are fascinating and powerful, so filled with rage and fear and, like something hurled at the canvas.  But i also wonder if any artist – male or female – could get away with subjecting the male figure to such sexualized disfigurement.  

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