De Kooning famously said, “Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented,” and although he often worked in an abstract style he continually returned to the figure.
Although the painting appears direct and spontaneous, de Kooning worked on Woman, I for over a year and a half, during which he interspersed vigorous painting sessions with long periods of looking and thinking. Over months, he applied paint to the canvas and scraped it away. At a point, he even discarded the unfinished painting for several weeks before eventually retrieving it and returning to work.
Woman, I offers an almost encyclopaedic display of the physical possibilities of paint. De Kooning’s handling is alternately thick and thin, rough and slick, opaque and translucent. Arcs of fluid paint mingle with coarse bursts of colour, as thick smears alternate with stains and drips faintly running down the canvas. As he worked, de Kooning prepared massive quantities of paint in kitchen bowls and constantly changed their properties by adding medium, solvent, water, or even eggs. These additions often kept the paints wet and fluid and allowed him flexibility in reworking his compositions over long periods of time. As a result, the process of painting is visible in the final work.
“I like a nice, juicy, greasy surface,” de Kooning noted, and in Woman, I he privileges surface over illusionistic depth. Despite the figure’s obvious heft, she appears flattened out, as if pressed up against the surface of the painting. Her massive arms, head, breasts, and legs have been forced into the shallow space of the composition, and through this presentation, de Kooning suggests once again an affinity between the painted surface and a woman’s flesh.
The hulking, wild–eyed subject draws upon an amalgam of female archetypes, from Palaeolithic fertility goddesses to contemporary pin–up girls. Her threatening stare and ferocious grin are heightened by de Kooning’s aggressive brushwork and frantic paint application. Combining voluptuousness and menace, Woman, I reflects the age–old cultural ambivalence between reverence for and fear of the power of the feminine.