Issues in Art History

ART 394:

Issues in Art History

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Woman 1 is one of the six series worked on by de Kooning from 1950 to 1952. The painting is centered upon a female figure. De Kooning took the opportunity of furthering experiment with extensive approaches of applying paint. He aimed at the exploration of the physical possibility of the medium. Looking at the painting one would imagine that it was worked on intuitively and rapidly. However, the work took almost two years. De Kooning made various studies and then repeatedly repainted the work. The canvas was centered upon one female figure[1]. The surface of the painting presents a nearly complete exhibition of the physical possibilities of the canvas. The surface ranges from opaque to translucent, rough to smooth, and thick to thin. Huge paint quantities for the canvas were prepared.

            The woman sits at the center of the five feet wide by six feet high painting. A mixture of sweeping brushstrokes in shades of green, pink, white, blue, gray, and orange characterizes the figure. The woman is distinguished partly from the vital brushstrokes surrounding her by rough black outlines. She faces down with her broad shoulders and ample bosoms. Her eyes are wide open and they take up almost a third of her entire face. The eyes are big as grenades. The mouth is nearly lipless full of long teeth which are grinning violently. She has huge limbs and huge breasts[2]. Even with the features, the woman appears compressed and pressed up against the surface. Her pink legs can be seen sticking out of a red, yellow, and white skirt.

Woman 1 is among the multiple works of De Kooning on the subject of women figure. There are other works which share a similar name. However, an exploration of this work will lead to a better understanding of de Kooning, his technique and eventually help in understanding how the work functions in art history system[3]. Analyzing the work as one of the main works of de Kooning through the lenses of feminism, formalism, and social art history criticism will help in recognizing how people can understand one work in various ways. The three criticism are linked and understanding one perspective helps in understanding the other two criticisms. Therefore, the three perspectives work together in creating a deeper understanding of the art work.

Feminism

Through a feminist perspective, the focus will be on how women are represented by the painting. Looking at Woman 1 painting as a feminist, it is clear that de Kooning put violence in the female figure in the portrait. Through painting, Kooning transforms the seated woman into a monster. He paints her with more violence. She represents woman as more monstrous and less human. The only clear features are teeth and breasts. The woman looks like she can bite any time[4]. Clearly, Kooning seems to put so much violence in women. The distorted shapes, exaggerated teeth and breast show the aggressiveness Kooning had while making the painting. The colliding brushstrokes show violence towards the female form. One time when the painting was being exhibited, feminists were shocked when they saw the colliding brushstrokes and interpreted them as a sign of violence on the female body[5].

Through the 1960s and 1970s, feminists continued the discussion of horror on the female subject in Woman 1 painting. They explained the horror of aggressive masculine sexuality towards the female body. Feminist critics argued that Kooning tone to shreds the woman, a subject that is supposed to be looked at and acted upon, with his paint. The critics argue that the painting is more dehumanizing[6]. The painting shows a negative attitude towards women. The attitude is hidden under the art sheen[7]. Feminists argue that the female form is savagely ripped leaving it in the horrible state. The criticism helps in understanding de Kooning’s work better. Feminists took issue with the ugly depictions of women by de Kooning in Woman 1. The vampish females did upset feminist fans of de Koonings works. The huge eyes, huge limbs, and the violent teeth made the female figure to look really ugly and scary. The monster like figure brought out a dehumanizing effect on women.

Butler, Schemmel, Wagner, & de Kooning note how Kooning used wild brushwork to turn female figures into distorted and vulgar images[8]. He intentionally created monumental images that are nearly violent. He distorts the images beyond recognition. Woman 1 is cited as evidence of misogyny of de Kooning[9]. Some people argued that the painting represents the twisted, broken, and stretched nature of his women. The painting suggests that de Kooning was extremely conflicted about women. Clearly, the female figure in Woman 1 is unreasonably vulgar and loud, the gaping eyes, and carnivalesque sense of explosive nature are all exaggerated. One cannot help but a thing of the work as a depiction of women. The work clearly shows a negative portrayal of women[10]. The lurid smiles angered some critics. In response to the criticism Ludwig Kirchner wondered what other kind of smile a woman would wear in de Kooning’s paintings. This confirms that the woman figure painting is monstrous and is made from psychosexual fixations. The painting seems to echo and enact violence against women in society.

Woman 1 is a key example of de Kooning’s work for a feminist critic because of the women display it gives. It is even more interesting noting that the display of the female figure was open to the public. De Kooning clearly shows his misogyny for women to the public. This gives the viewer more feminism power in thinking of how women have been depicted[11]. The way de Kooning exaggerates everything in the painting from body parts emphasizes the fact that he had issues with women. As it is common with his other women paintings, he represents women as monsters. The painting was considered to manifest a human female who is extremely hostile. According to a summary by Maria Prather, the painting was described as a frightening goddess, a show of brutality and hate. This version of a woman contrasts to the sexuality of women. Thinking about history, women have been represented as beautiful and soft definitely not as ugly and rough. Any representation of a rough and scary woman is controversial even back in history.

Richard Shiff argued that first view of the painting raised questions over the attitude of de Kooning towards women[12]. This is because the attitude seemed to represent the subject as aggressive, unappealing, and violent. Shiff saw Kooning as having a monster perception of a woman. Sometimes moves by painters may be manifestations of unconscious aggression. However, in the case of Kooning it seems like his motive was intentional. Although de Kooning has been criticized for being a misogyny to women, some critics argue that he is less of a misogynist. In some way, he seeks to show the strength of women. With the painting, he acknowledges the capability of women[13]. The fact that he married a woman shows that he somehow cares for women. Therefore, the scary look of the painting could suggest that he was contrasting the view of the society that women are weak[14]. The huge body could in some way suggest that women are strong as men and should be given similar treatment to male counterparts.

Formalism

Analyzing an art work from formalism perspective is important as it helps in understanding a painter and their style. By looking at Woman 1 through feminism perspective one is able to have a greater understanding of the art work from a formalist perspective. In art history, analyzing an art work from formalism perspective involves comparing style and form. When it comes to painting in particular, formalism focuses on analyzing compositional elements such as texture, line, and color. This is unlike feminism perspective that focuses on social context. Therefore, from a formalist critic, the focus on Woman 1 is on the qualities of brushwork, line, form, and color. De Kooning’s style in his works shifted from bold thickly painted works to colored works that are light spirals[15]. The colors are lush, garish, and putrid even. Throughout his works, he substitutes color for form and line.

When it comes to color, de Kooning used a variety of colors in painting Woman 1. Formalist critics can clearly use the various colors including pink, green, white, blue, black, gray, and orange to judge the quality of the painting. The painting has brushstrokes of these colors bringing out the art work. One can easily identify the use of pink color on legs, grey brushstrokes on the face and a mix of all the colors around the other parts of the painting. A view of the painting shows an aggressive brushwork and a wild application of paint[16]. Understanding feminism criticism of the painting helps in understanding the use of color from a formalist perspective. By understanding feminism criticism, a formalist understands why de Kooning seems to use brushstrokes aggressively and why the painting seems to be applied wildly. The painting is characterized by color splashes[17]. Formalists identify the aggressive use of the colors in discerning the quality of the painting.

Just as in other paintings, de Kooning uses a mix of colors in Woman 1 painting. Although the colors make the painting attractive, the aggressive nature in the painting raises concerns about its quality. A close look at the use of color in Woman 1 indicates that de Kooning was a formalist. The way he painted and repainted the canvas is a proof that he saw meaning in the colors he used in the painting. The constant repainting even pushed de Kooning to abandon the work only to later make the final repainting[18]. From a formalist perspective, de Kooning’s use of a mix of colors suggests that he did put meaning in color rather than on the subject itself. Even though, he created a female figure, the way he covered most parts of the body explains he emphasize of aesthetic elements rather than focusing on the beauty or ugliness of the subject[19]. This shows that the painter was like a formalist. This gives formalists a go ahead in judging the painting from a formalist perspective.

Various studies on de Kooning works also take a formalism perspective with critics focusing on the use of color in the works. This is because he seems to have put a lot of effort in using colors and hiding the subjects suggesting that viewers should find meaning in art itself rather than on the subject[20]. A close study on the art work from a formalist perspective would thus help in understanding Woman 1 painting and de Kooning’s style. Another aspect of analysis from a formalist perspective is shape. The shape is defined by line providing contour. Together with space, shape represents the relationship between objects in a painting. In Woman 1, the shapes are distorted[21]. They are mostly exaggerated. Understanding the painting from a feminist perspective helps in understanding the reasoning behind the distorted shape. De Kooning used various shapes in creating Woman 1. The use of these shapes suggests that he was a formalist who sought to express himself through the art work itself rather than through the subject.

De Kooning could have been a formalist in the way he used texture in the painting. The painting ranges from rough to smooth. Some parts seem smooth while others look rough. A feminist approach helps in understanding the texture since the approach gives the meaning of the texture to the subject. Therefore understanding the texture from a feminist approach makes it easy to understand de Kooning style in the painting. De Kooning always looked forward to a perfect texture for his works and thus was frequently experimenting with painting techniques in new ways. This explains why he kept on redoing the painting over two years before bringing out the final canvas[22]. Woman 1 is interesting especially when viewed from a formalism perspective. Other paintings with female figures contain the aesthetic elements can be connected to Woman 1. From the work, one can see the attention given to art work rather than to the subject itself. De Kooning used paint intentionally to bring out a beautiful art work. The use of brushwork, color, and distorted shapes helps in understanding why Woman 1 stood out among other similar paintings in the 1950s[23]. Doing a formalism analysis of Woman 1 helps in understanding de Kooning’s works and themes. Feminism approach helps in understanding the painting from a formalism perspective[24]. Similarly, formalism perspective also helps in understanding Woman 1 from a feminism perspective.

Social art history

Social art history perspective involves analyzing an art work from influence a society has on an artist. Through the perspective one understands the effect place and time has on an art work. Social art historians argue that an artist is conditioned by the society they develop in. Therefore analysing an art work from the social art history perspective involves looking at the role society has played in the development of the work. The critics seek to understand an art work from the historical evidence[25]. Unlike formalism approach which analyses an art work from the aesthetic realm, social art history emphasizes the connection of an art work to the surrounding society. Although de Kooning arrived in New York at 22 years in 1926, by 1951, he had made various sensational and controversial artworks.

 De Kooning trained in fine and commercial art. He worked in the Netherlands as a sign painter while still making paintings in an academic style. In 1926 he moved to New York which was characterized by Jazz age[26]. The abstract art created by other artists influenced by Jazz Age influenced him. He also developed a friendship with other artists such as Arshile Gorky and Stuart Davis. In the 1930s, Jazz Age crashed with the Great Depression. As part of curbing unemployment that followed, de Kooning was assigned the role of designing public murals. It is in fulfilling this role that he created his first abstraction. Working on the project encouraged him to pursue fulltime art making[27]. By 1940s, de Kooning started gaining fame as an artist as creativity started shifting to New York. The fame drove him into exploring art by trying new styles. This led him to move from abstract style to figure eventually leading to the painting of a female figure in Woman 1 canvas.

When he began painting Woman 1, American art was characterized by abstraction. Many people saw the painting as a betrayal for the dominant style[28]. This criticism seems to have given him the motivation to continue with the art work. This is because he liked doing things from his own perspective rather than being controlled by other people. The fact that his fellow painters emphasized abstracts painting pushed him to express interest in figurative painting evident in Woman 1 canvas[29].  The fact that de Kooning was influenced by the ideologies in the society to do the figurative painting makes Woman 1 a key example of his works for social art history criticism. Understanding the work from a feminist perspective helps in understanding the work from a social art historian. The feminist approach helps in understanding the elements he decided to include in the painting even when critics argue the social surrounding influenced him.

Analysing Woman 1 from social art history helps in understanding de Kooning and his styles. Apart from being influenced by the need to go against his fellow artists, he was influenced by photography from magazines[30]. The image of attractive lips in advertisements of cigarette fascinated him. The advertisements influenced him to a great extent to a point where he incorporated patchworks of the T-zone in Woman 1. However, while finalizing the painting, he eliminated the collaged mouth and repainted the face[31]. Social art history critics would argue that the photography in magazines influenced him in coming up with the painting. Additionally, apart from the issue of abstract and figurative painting, the issues of the fear of the feminine power seems to have also influenced de Kooning in painting Woman 1[32]. Clearly, Woman 1 is very interesting when analyzed from a social art history perspective. The view shows that there is more to aesthetic value in an art work. It indicates that the surrounding of an artist and the environment in which an art work is produced influences the final work. The perspective shows that space and time plays a significant role in producing an art work.

Conclusion

Using feminism, formalism, and social art history perspectives help in understanding an art work from different angles. Each perspective produces a new understanding of a work leading to a different understanding of a single work. The criticisms complement each other in creating a deeper understanding of Woman 1. They also help in understanding de Kooning and his style in painting. Feminism perspective plays a major role in understanding the reasoning behind the monstrous female figure. Through a feminist perspective, one can understand de Kooning’s choice of aggressive brushstrokes, and distorted shapes. Such an understanding can help understand the attitude of the artist towards women. The study of formalism was also interesting in this essay. In woman 1, de Kooning shows formalist elements. The way he uses color, space, and shape in the painting suggests that he was a formalist.

In the essay, social art history criticism seems to be less interesting. De Kooning is more than being influenced by the surrounding. The perspective cannot be compared to feminism and formalism whose elements are almost very clear. The criticism is however supplemented by feminism perspective. Clearly, the three perspectives are complementary considering that they work together in bringing out a stronger understanding of the art work. Since art history is a mixture of various criticisms, it is difficult to study one criticism without another. In Woman 1, feminism helped in understanding formalism and social art history criticisms just as the two helped in understanding feminism. The three helped in creating a complete understanding of the artist and of the art work. Apart from the three perspectives, other criticisms can be used together with the three and bring out a complete understanding of the work. Clearly examining an art work from different criticisms helps in creating a fuller understanding compared to using just one criticism.

Willem de Kooning: Woman 1 (1950-52)

References

Anfam, David. “De Kooning, Bosch and Bruegel: Some Fundamental Themes.” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 145, No. 1207, 2003, 705-715.

De Kooning, Willem, Cornelia, Butler, Schimmel, Pual, Museum of Contemporary Art (Los          Angeles, Calif), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and National Gallery of Art       (U.S.). ‘Willem de Kooning: Tracing the Figure’ Museum of Contemporary Art, Los      Angeles, 2002.

Elderfield, John. ‘De Kooning: A Retrospective’ The Museum of Modern Art, New York;           First Printing edition. 2011.

Jones, Jonathan. ‘Woman I, Willem de Kooning (1950-52)’ The Guardian, 2002. Available     at https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2002/aug/24/art

Lake, Susan, Willem De Kooning, and Michael Schilling. ‘Willem de Kooning: The Artist’s Materials’. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2010.

MoMa Learning. ‘Willem de Kooning: Woman 1’ n.d.  Available at             https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/willem-de-kooning-woman-i-1950-52-

Platt, Susan. ‘Formalism and American Art Criticism in the 1920s’ 2012, 69-83.

Shiff, Richard. ‘Between Sense and De Kooning.’ London: Reaktion Books, 2011.

Sylvester, David. “The Birth of ‘Woman I.’” The Burlington Magazine 137, no. 1105 (1995): 220–32.

Willem-de-Kooning.org. ‘Willem de Kooning and his paintings’ 2011. Available at     http://www.willem-de-kooning.org/


[1] Jonathan, Jones. ‘Woman I, Willem de Kooning (1950-52)’ The Guardian, 2002. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2002/aug/24/art

[2] Jonathan, Jones. ‘Woman I, Willem de Kooning (1950-52).

[3] Willem-de-Kooning.org. ‘Willem de Kooning and his paintings’ 2011. Available at http://www.willem-de-kooning.org/

[4] David, Sylvester. “The Birth of ‘Woman I.’” The Burlington Magazine 137, no. 1105 (1995): 220–32.

[5] Sylvester, David. “The Birth of ‘Woman I, 222.

[6] David, Anfam. “De Kooning, Bosch and Bruegel: Some Fundamental Themes.” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 145, No. 1207, 2003, 705-715.

[7] Sylvester, 226.

[8] Willem, de Kooning, Cornelia, Butler, Schimmel, Pual, Museum of Contemporary Art (Los Angeles, Calif), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and National Gallery of Art (U.S.). ‘Willem de Kooning: Tracing the Figure’ Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2002.

[9] Anfam, 711.

[10] Butler et al, 78.

[11] Ibid, 126.

[12] Richard, Shiff, ‘Between Sense and De Kooning’. London: Reaktion Books, 2011.

[13] Shiff, 89.

[14] Ibid, 91.

[15] Sylvester, 229.

[16] Ibid, 229.

[17] Ibid, 230.

[18] Jonathan, ‘Woman I, Willem de Kooning (1950-52)

[19] Ibid

[20] Susan, Platt. ‘Formalism and American Art Criticism in the 1920s’ 2012, 69-83.

[21] MoMa Learning. ‘Willem de Kooning: Woman 1’  

[22] MoMa Learning. ‘Willem de Kooning: Woman 1’ n.d.  Available at https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/willem-de-kooning-woman-i-1950-52-2/

[23] MoMa Learning. ‘Willem de Kooning: Woman 1’   

[24] Ibid

[25] Susan. ‘Formalism and American Art Criticism in the 1920s’ 2012, 71.

[26] Jonathan. ‘Woman I, Willem de Kooning (1950-52).

[27] Ibid

[28] Susan, Lake, Willem De Kooning, and Michael Schilling. ‘Willem de Kooning: The Artist’s Materials’. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2010.

[29] Anfam, 712.

[30] John, Elderfield. ‘De Kooning: A Retrospective’ The Museum of Modern Art, New York; First Printing edition. 2011.

[31] Anfam, 709.

[32] Jonathan, ‘Woman I, Willem de Kooning (1950-52).