Willem de Kooning and his ‘Woman’ Series

The Woman paintings of Willem de Kooning are unpleasant. They always have been. It was already apparent when painters who dropped by the artist’s studio between 1949 and 1952 saw the pieces in progress. That was on New York’s 10th Street, and those canvases gave off the down-town vulgarity of a lean neighbourhood.[1] De Kooning’s friends were jolted. The energised brushwork, his muscular handling of oil paint like a sportsman making wholly original moves during play, was outrageous enough. But these paintings of a ham-thighed, hulking blonde with leering barracuda eyes and pianola teeth—as images, they repelled.

On that intersection of opinion there continues to be little disagreement between those who disparage, and those who esteem, Abstract Expressionist art. This short run of modestly sized canvases instantly embody that Modernist “shock of the new”.

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If the Woman paintings are now held up as canonical works of modern art, scholars have been coy about discussing their meanings. Take the Royal Academy’s commanding survey of Abstract Expressionism in 2016. Three Woman pictures hung in that immense London exhibition; they were given one careful sentence in the catalogue, assuring viewers there was an “overriding humanism” to these “controversial” images of a female form.[2] Then there was the authoritative de Kooning retrospective in New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2011, which included all the key works. Its hefty 506-page catalogue did not dwell on the meanings of the Woman series, steering discussion into matters of style and technique.[3]

Even as mainstream art history has pulled back, a controversial interpretation of de Kooning’s Woman pictures has taken hold in the academy. Driven by feminism, it aspires to explain the in-your-face nastiness they exude. These unsettling figures in thickly applied oil paint, the argument runs, express male urges to assault women most violently.

The case against de Kooning’s abstractions has been developed and initially advanced by Dr Fionna Barber (right), reader in art history at the Manchester School of Art. Instead of using customary methods of scholarship, Barber has offered a psychological appraisal of what she suggests is the implicitly sexual nature of post-war American art. Her essay “Abstract Expressionism and Masculinity” (2004) appeared in Varieties of Modernism, an instalment of the multi-volume series on the history of art published by Britain’s Open University.[4]

Focusing on the works of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko, “Abstract Expressionism and Masculinity” is not structured as a progressive argument. Rather, in a meandering, circuitous discussion Barber probes three issues which, for her, broadly affect creative works: (i) there is the subject matter used by the artists collectively, as well as an individual painter’s specific choice of image; (ii) there are the techniques employed, and how paint has been applied physically to canvas by an artist; and (iii) there are the workclothes worn by painters in their studios. Taken together, these aspects are said to reveal an emphatic sexual undertone to abstract expressionist pictures. No sources or material from psychology are given in support of this diagnostic approach.

Much of Barber’s discussion of imagery is sound. Among the insights feminism has contributed to art history is to reveal thematic patterns in how women are represented. Sets of gender stereotypes have been identified, like the nurturing mother, the chaste maiden, the eroticised vamp, or—in the Woman images—the repulsive shrew. De Kooning’s use of the latter theme was not a case of unthinking chauvinism. The Abstract Expressionists were fascinated by C.G. Jung’s theory of archetypes. To this end, de Kooning invoked an ancient fierce-female archetype considered part of our mental furniture. This led the critic Robert Hughes to wonder if de Kooning was recycling the medieval giftmädchen of North European folk art, those lusty poison maids reeking of brimstone.[5] However, quoting the artist’s remark, “Maybe I was painting the woman in me,” Barber shows him looking to the Venus of Willendorf (below) and pre-historic mythic imagery when thinking out the Woman motif.[6] She adds that the Marxist art historian Carol Duncan has observed how, like archaic sculpture, de Kooning’s pictures can perform as “ritual artefacts” in museum displays.[7]

Barber makes strong points here, although de Kooning’s loose intentions become grounds for censure. Feminists reject this Jungian model, seeing it as typecasting women negatively: so de Kooning is portraying the feminine in an improper way.

It is when discussing technique that Barber presents a new interpretive approach. She is convinced that brushwork is inherently sexual, with individual paint strokes amounting to “signifiers of masculinity”. As evidence she points to the black-on-white gestural abstractions of Franz Kline—de Kooning’s close friend—where a “draining of colour focuses attention on the brushstroke; in the context of sexual difference, the exaggerated gesture seems almost hyper-masculine”.[8] Barber contrasts this deliberate brushwork with the techniques of Jackson Pollock (dribbled and poured paint), Clyfford Still (waxy pigment trowelled on with a painting knife) and Mark Rothko (thinned paint applied as vaporous veils of colour). It is implied the artists leaned towards gender fluidity by not using brushes. Female Abstract Expressionists are also swept into this argument. Barber claims sexual role-play underpins how women members of the movement painted, writing that Joan Mitchell’s quite brushy abstractions “become legible, I would suggest, as a kind of ‘drag-act’”.[9]

Once started, there is little stopping efforts to psychologise technique. Some aspects of de Kooning’s paintwork are declared “masculine”, others “feminine”.[10] So for Barber the Woman compositions are sexual struggles where the feminine confronts masculinity: “The classic grid structure that surrounds the figure is recognisably encoded as masculine, in contrast to the grotesque, uncontrolled female body that erupts within it,” she writes.[11] From here it’s a short step to treating the roughened surfaces of de Kooning’s pictures as a means of sexual abuse. To Barber’s eye, his painting process amounts to a simulated violent assault: the artist substitutes pigment for a woman’s flesh, then uses brushes and painting knives as if he were thrashing the paint surface. In distorting female figures, she explains, De Kooning “conflates the deconstruction of the represented body with the enactment of violence on the bodies of actual women”, thereby making manifest male yearnings to beat up women.[12]

Circumstantial evidence is introduced to support this interpretation. Barber conjectures that “the construction of gender roles in abstract expressionism” is evident if we scrutinise the clothing artists wore. So she attempts to reveal psychological sub-texts to Willem de Kooning’s attire and posture in a well-known studio photograph.[13]

Taken in 1953, the shot (left) shows the artist seemingly paused in a painting session, accompanied by his wife, Elaine. The couple are positioned either side of an unfinished Woman composition nailed flat to the wall. He is to the right; she, the left. Dressed in a T-shirt, paint-spattered work trousers and sandals, de Kooning stands facing the camera with arms crossed. Wearing pedal-pushers and a loose cotton man’s shirt, Elaine de Kooning smokes a cigarette. She is seated in an awkward sideways pose on a rush-seated chair, her legs drawn up as she looks out to the left.

For Barber, the artist’s attire and pose ooze masculine potency. De Kooning is said to strike an “aggressive, macho pose”, using a form-fitting shirt to flaunt his “muscularity”.[14] Barber adds that in wearing the T-shirt (“a versatile garment enabling the performance of masculinity in a range of social spaces”) he is identifying with tradesmen and labourers, thereby signalling an “anti-bourgeois” bohemianism.[15] She points to publicity posters for the 1951 movie A Streetcar Named Desire. Barber feels it no accident they depicted the actor Marlon Brando wearing a pale T-shirt for his role as the uncouth Stanley Kowalski, and claims de Kooning projects the same post-war “eroticised masculinity” as Brando.[16]

Tying off potential loose ends on her psychology of clothing, Barber points to how Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline likewise wear T-shirts in photographs. She then contrasts this to Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, who she says were snapped when dressed in suits or shirt-and-tie. For Barber this indicates that suits and ties “may be regarded as continuous with profound intellectual engagement”.[17] In other words, hypermasculine artists signalled their interests with T-shirts, whereas the bookish ones broadcast their more erudite leanings via lounge suits.[18]

The interpretative approach Barber applies to de Kooning’s Woman paintings evolved from 1970s feminist cultural criticism. Taking the lead from popular psychology, especially Freudian-inspired dream interpretation, at that time some aspiring feminist critics analysed creative work much as they would dreams. Literary and artistic works were treated as symbolic versions of sexual autobiography. Amateur psychologising was commonplace, as well-meaning if misguided critics tried to show how novels or paintings implicitly portrayed a collision of female-victim with male-abuser, then would read this back into the artist’s or author’s personal life.

These lines for literary criticism had already been discredited after the Sinyavsky–Daniel trial of 1966, the only formal trial of dissident writers conducted in Russia during the Cold War.[19] The defendants, who had illegally published novels and poetry in the West, were accused of “Anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” under Article 70 of the criminal code. The prosecutor used as evidence selected passages from their fiction. He also claimed characters critical of the USSR were self-portraits. In his defence, Andrei Sinyavsky likened the prosecutor’s actions to sifting Macbeth and Hamlet looking for an insidious meaning. He contended that lines in his historical novels were being taken out of context; besides the characters were imaginary—as in Gogol’s and Pushkin’s fiction—not portraits of real people, least of all himself.[20] The court found the two authors guilty, sentencing them to hard labour in a gulag.

There was an instant international outcry. A rollcall of distinguished writers, including Hannah Arendt, Lillian Hellman, Simone de Beauvoir and Mary McCarthy, petitioned the Soviet government for the authors’ release. Their protests intensified when a smuggled transcript of the closed trial was published in the New York Times. Cultural journals picked apart the Moscow prosecutor’s case, arguing poems and stories ought not be read this way; because if writers do borrow observations from life when assembling a fictional work, these are raw materials enabling invention to occur. Any seeming factual value is illusory, pressure of creativity shaping the text.

Nevertheless, within a decade younger feminists were moving down the same path. Sylvia Plath, an American poet, was the main focus of early interpretive activity. She was a tragic case. Afflicted with periodic depression in a short, intensely creative life, Plath committed suicide at thirty years of age in 1963, gassing herself as her infant children slept in the next room. She left behind a remarkable series of poems crafted since her baby son’s birth. Her poet husband, Ted Hughes (at left with Plath and their child shortly before her suicide), devotedly published this legacy as Ariel (1965). It was an instant sensation in literary circles. Plath had shaped an abrasively confessional poetry, steeped in archaic symbolism (Robert Graves’s The White Goddess and C.G. Jung’s writings were among her source materials), while grappling with present-day moral themes. Several poems confronted the evils of totalitarianism and the Holocaust.

Plath’s poetry was taken up by a percolating women’s movement. Many feminists felt her verse arose from domestic anxieties. For them Ariel was a song of liberation, with the fraught poems “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy” venting a rage against controlling men and their stifling world.[21] Plath’s writing was said to cryptically represent her own marriage in an embittered way. For feminists, Holocaust imagery referred to emotional oppression suffered by the poet, and supposedly exposed her husband as a manipulative abuser.

An orthodoxy was in the making.[22] Jumping to conclusions, sometimes ignoring contrary evidence, feminists insisted Plath’s verse was cloaked autobiography. Literary scholars who wrote otherwise were accused of a cover-up. Early reviews of her poetry were selectively quoted to suggest chauvinist critics wanted to distort meanings. Even medical explanations for Plath’s depression were dismissed: she was an embattled woman, a martyr, end of story. When her mother published Plath’s letters in an effort to correct misinterpretation, feminists went through the correspondence line-by-line, twisting cheerful words to say otherwise.

Activity didn’t halt at speculation over Plath’s poetic imagery. Protests were staged when her widower husband attended literary festivals. Feminists would harass Ted Hughes during readings or panel discussions, waving banners and shouting he had “killed” Sylvia Plath. Across universities, campus women’s groups demanded his verse be removed from studies. Poison-pen letters arrived in his mail, and Hughes feared the children might hear vile things about their mother. Most hurtful was the vandalisation of Plath’s grave (right). For over a decade feminist graffiti kept being daubed across the headstone, with her married surname chiselled out on four occasions.[23] Blamed in the Guardian for her damaged grave, Hughes sent a short corrective letter to the editor, which finished by asking if “the fantasia about Sylvia Plath is more needed than the facts”, and “where that leaves respect for the truth of her life (and my life)?”[24]

The feminist view of Plath’s life was about to be shaken as he wrote this. The catalyst was The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, an investigative report by the literary critic Janet Malcolm. It appeared in the New Yorker over summer 1993, then was published in book form. In it Malcolm describes reading a new biography of Plath—in her estimation “by far the most intelligent and aesthetically satisfying” of the five biographies to date—then being astonished at the brutal reviews it received: “the book became known and continues to be known in the Plath world as a ‘bad’ book”.[25] Planning to write on the vexed nature of biography generally, Malcolm began asking around; then, her curiosity aroused, she sought scholars and Plath’s friends. She soon found deep fault-lines criss-crossing historical and literary interpretation. Academics had to toe a political line or risk reprisals. Even conscientious women scholars were fair game for feminist bullying if they did not conform.

It was now apparent how pressure was broadly being applied to interpretation across the creative arts. Certain artists have taken their sexual and emotional life as a subject, Pablo Picasso being a prime case; but most have not. Nevertheless, boundaries of fictional invention were disregarded, with creative works treated as disguised records of real experiences and behaviour. Like lawyers in an acrimonious divorce, feminists sifted historical poems, novels and works of art for potential proof of manipulation and ill-treatment in the writer’s or artist’s life. Trivialities were inflated out of proportion to suggest a female writer was abused, or a male painter harboured violent impulses.

Barber’s discussion of de Kooning’s art is symptomatic of this approach. Starting with legitimate unease over how a woman is portrayed, it then claims a sexual subtext to artistic technique as well as how artists appear in old photographs. While the article does not suggest de Kooning was actually abusive or violent to women, it does claim both his paintings and manner of dress exude such “hypermasculine” values. Conclusive evidence is lacking; but Barber rushes to interpret mental drives where professional psychologists fear to tread.

Fionna Barber is on solid ground when covering a debt to Jung’s ideas, and she offers firm references. But her psychologising of technique recalls criticisms of Dmitri Shostakovitch’s music by Stalin’s apparatchiks. They had declared certain of his orchestral phrases and melodic passages contrary to Soviet Socialism. This was nonsense. The composer had fallen out of favour, so reasons were concocted to justify official censure. Likewise with Barber’s claims about sexual identity and paint application.

Take the comments on Jackson Pollock’s dripped compositions, which Barber says “raise questions of gender”.[26] She holds that gender fluidity is associated with his palette. For example, the title of Pollock’s Lavender Mist “is suggestive of a gender ambiguity in the association of lavender with male homosexuality, while the delicate pastel surface of the painting itself is shot through with skeins of pink, a colour more closely associated with femininity, especially in the polarised gender roles of the post-war period”.[27] This was not the known intention of the artist and his friend Clement Greenberg, when together they coined Lavender Mist and titles for several related works.[28] Pollock’s preferred titles dealt in mythic symbolism (Autumn Rhythm, Night Ceremony, Totem Lesson).[29] The titles Greenberg urged on him were baldly descriptive, the critic shunning what he considered outdated suggestions of content.[30] Take an abstraction which features elongated blue motifs consciously echoing the feathered staffs used by Navajo Indians for magic rituals—Greenberg pressed for the blunt title Blue Poles. Similarly, Lavender Mist referred to how coloured threads of pigment merged visually into a lavender hue.


Neither is Barber’s claim about sexual nuances to the Pollock work supported by that cornerstone of analytical art history: Colour Theory. This is a broad field of scholarship extending from symbolism, through how artists used colour to compose, across to the psychology of visual perception, and even paint chemistry. Colour Theory is a first stop when investigating colours in pictures; ignoring it, Barber talks at the level of blue-for-boys and pink-for-girls customary in gift shops.

Equally unstable is her declaration that painting is “an activity encoded as masculine”.[31] This goes against the very enterprise of feminist art history. Successive waves of scholars have disproved a chauvinist view that painting is an inherently male skill, showing there always have been women painters. Still, Barber’s remark enables her to quote the postmodern theorist Ann Gibson, who opines that Pollock’s “poured lines of paint suggest both an ejaculatory (stereotypically masculine) method of applying paint and a decorative (stereotypically feminine) pattern of threadlike lines”.[32] Again Pollock’s work is said to express gender fluidity.

This is not the cautious path of objective analysis, indeed, no recognised analytical method is used here. Instead, it resembles a free-association session where, as with Hermann Rorschach’s test cards, a patient will project their fixations upon random blots. Take when Barber calls a loop of dripped white paint in Pollock’s Number 1A, 1948 “skull-like”.[33] But no image was intended, or is evident. It is a shapeless drip. Likewise when Barber describes de Kooning’s Woman works, she says the figure “erupts” from a “grid structure” that is “masculine”.[34] Sustained scrutiny reveals no organising grid—masculine or otherwise—in the paintings.

In the absence of any statement by de Kooning of a violent intent, Barber supports her claims about his paintwork, and process of visual distortion, with quotations by prominent art writers. One is the New York critic Clement Greenberg in 1955:

When [de Kooning] left outright abstraction several years ago to attack the female form with a fury greater than Picasso’s, the results baffled and shocked collectors, yet the methods by which these savage dissections were carried out were patently Cubist.[35]

Readers are told this remark “contains a sense of violence done to the figure”.[36] A second colourful passage is excerpted from an article in 1985 by the art historian Robert Rosenblum:

Confronted with the hurricane force of de Kooning’s Women series of 1950–53, we feel that the spirit of the Stone Age Venuses of Willendorf or Lespugue lies at the root of this art, as do many of the Mesopotamian figures, which, with their bug-eyed stare and threatening frontality, de Kooning has acknowledged as influences. And as for painterly mutilation, there is always the example of Chaim Soutine, whose 1950 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art would have supported de Kooning’s audacity in handling pink and red paint as if he were a wrestler or a rapist attacking resistant flesh.[37]

It is following this quotation that Barber writes of the Woman paintings as amounting to assaults on “the bodies of actual women”, because they “conflate” artistic depiction with an act of violence.[38] She adds that similar references to “key themes of violence and horror” appear in early reviews of the Woman paintings, thereby supporting her point.[39]

There is a simple explanation for violence being mentioned in early criticism. The poet Frank O’Hara, a friend of de Kooning and Pollock, pointed out how “the impression was of inexplicable violence and savagery” when Abstract Expressionist work was first exhibited.[40] Upon inquiry, he found this the reaction of viewers unsettled by a “violation of ingrained assumptions”, which is a well-known response to new art.[41] The Impressionists were likewise accused of violence, as were the Post-Impressionists, Expressionists and others. Viewer agitation is even implicit in the term Fauvism: indignant Parisian critics had jeered at a group show, calling Matisse and his circle fauves (savage beasts). Actually, in that quoted passage by Clement Greenberg, the critic writes of the “baffled and shocked” responses of collectors to new art: it was they who reacted to de Kooning’s pictures as “savage dissections”.

Barber’s use of the two passages is also seriously flawed. Both employ figurative language: Greenberg drops into metaphor, and Rosenblum employs simile (notice his qualifying phrase “as if he were”), the passages using physical activity to account for imaginative effort. Of course, we often say artists, poets and composers “struggle” or “wrestle” with a composition in progress. These figures of speech are rhetorical devices to indicate intellectual toil, the words struggle or wrestle being commonly used for intense mental effort, as they might be for physicists and scientists as they cogitate on a difficult conceptual problem. But neither of these rhetorical modes trades in literal description. If one writes that Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking wrestled with the universe, the reader knows this was not a physical event. Metaphors and similes are not to be confused with the real thing. Barber ignores this.

There is a more fundamental error in her argument here. Neither passage was written or uttered by Willem de Kooning. They are not his words. The painter is not their author, and he is in no way responsible for them. So they are not to be taken as his statements of intention. But Barber holds the artist accountable for what others write about his work.

On this broad issue, the New York curator John Elderfield points out “far more has been written about the response to the Woman paintings than on the Woman paintings”. And with claims of their sexual aggression, he found this flows from how viewers respond to works as “composed of muscled masculine strokes—angry strokes that reflect an inner turmoil. It was as such they have invited the charge of misogyny.” Elderfield also notes that over time “the analogy [with sexual violence] grew more extreme, even respected art historians losing all sense of proportion”.[42] Elderfield concludes that much as some will find any great religious painting blasphemous, challenging portrayals of women always attract protest.

Jackson Pollock was cranky when de Kooning exhibited those Woman compositions in March 1953. This was at Sidney Janis Gallery, on the fourth floor of a building at 15 East 57th Street, the heart of New York’s gallery scene. Six Woman paintings hung around the main room, with another thirteen pastels and a pencil drawing on the same theme, as well as two small oils, displayed in a side gallery. Pollock spent quite a time absorbing those works.

At the studio party afterwards the critic Thomas Hess passed around the latest issue of ARTnews. To tie in with the exhibition it included “De Kooning Paints a Picture”, an illustrated article he’d written showing the evolution of Woman I in the studio.[43] Angered at what was occurring, Pollock yelled at de Kooning across the room: “Bill, you betrayed it. You’re doing the figure, you’re still doing the same goddamn thing. You know you never got out of being a figure painter.”[44] Pollock was impulsive, although other painters there were also unsettled. De Kooning wouldn’t pull away from the human form—like those leaders of the modern movement, Picasso and Matisse—and this time he appeared to flaunt his bravura technique.

Artists were always aware of Willem de Kooning’s rigorous training. Apprenticed to a Rotterdam decorator when barely adolescent, he initially studied industrial decoration and commercial art. He acquired a broad tradecraft in a busy workshop by day and attended design classes at technical school in the evening. The teenager excelled at sign- and ticket-writing, a steady career being assured: “I was a good letterer, and I could paint signs. I never expected to be an artist, just to make a living.”[45]

Three years into the apprenticeship de Kooning adjusted his studies, wanting to perfect his graphic illustration. The fifteen-year-old enrolled in drawing classes held six nights a week at the Rotterdam Academy, a traditionalist art school. He was drilled there by copying plaster casts of Greco-Roman statuary, progressing from acanthus leaf to sandalled foot, to bust, to stele, to standing figure, before entering the life-class. His instructors saw promise, so at seventeen years of age he was offered a state scholarship. He then undertook full training at the academy, along with formative visits to study Old Master works at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.[46]

That background stood Willem de Kooning in good stead. When needed he could always execute a disciplined drawing from life, while trade school then the academy gave him an enviable grasp of techniques and paint chemistry. After he settled in Greenwich Village during the mid-1930s he gained a reputation for his know-how.[47] When Arshile Gorky was once having difficulty painting graceful lines, de Kooning (with Gorky below) showed him how to use a liner brush.[48]

Besides equipping the painter with professional skills, the academy instilled an awareness of artistic tradition. “De Kooning felt very much part of the tradition of Western European painting going back to the Renaissance,” the critic Calvin Tomkins recalled. If de Kooning embraced a modern outlook, his paintings confirmed T.S. Eliot’s rule that truly original talent extracts from tradition even as it shakes and reconfigures that tradition.[49] This was why de Kooning worked slowly—“incredibly slowly,” Tomkins continues, “scraping out and starting over again time after time, searching for the essential combination of color and form that would have the rightness, the lastingness of a Tintoretto or an Ingres. He spent nearly two years working on Woman I…”[50] Elaine de Kooning confirmed that the Woman compositions were deliberated over:

Bill worked on these just all day, every day. Even the small ones. Even if it took a year. I should make the point here that on any given canvas, I saw hundreds of images go by … I would come in at night and find they had been painted away.[51]

That goes against popular perceptions of Abstract Expressionists working in a wild rush; for any impression of creative haste is illusory. The principal artists were carefully paced, labouring for months, sometimes longer, to bring a piece to completion.

This is apparent when scrutinising paintings in a museum, and attending to brushstrokes. The American artist David Salle likens brushwork in painting to drumming in music, because a brush enables the painter’s hand to communicate so directly.[52] And as jazz enthusiasts appreciate skilled drumming, experienced viewers will value skilled brushstrokes. Think of Rembrandt’s later portraits, of Monet’s waterlilies, of van Gogh’s landscapes. Machines cannot offer a comparable experience, too much being carried by human touch.[53] Likewise brushstrokes in hurried pictures, or from an unskilled hand, will be repetitive. They look, and are, much the same; which can prompt complaints they appear bland and mechanical.

Such views underpinned the outlook of the New York painters who spoke of “gesture” as the elementary unit for pictorial communication. Each honed his or her own abstract gestures. Mark Tobey’s brush was informed by Oriental calligraphy, Adolph Gottlieb’s strokes were fragments of ancient pictograms, Bradley Walker Tomlin used mark-making as a means of lyrical decoration, and Franz Kline worked up psychologically loaded brushwork. Then there was Harold Rosenberg, the critic who coined the term “Action Painting” for what his friends were doing. Tapping Existentialist ideas, Rosenberg declared their paintings were records of an existential “event”, with the canvas acting as an “arena” and individual brushstrokes amounting to units of creative action.[54] “The big moment came when it was decided to paint, just to paint,” he wrote in ARTnews. “The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation …”[55]

Rosenberg was a frequent visitor to Willem de Kooning’s studio, watching the Woman series being painted, and using the artist as a sounding board to test Existentialist ideas of how experience could be fixed in paint, that transitoriness of life. De Kooning went along with Rosenberg up to a point; but he said there was more to his method. Scanning the surfaces of those paintings, it is evident his brush doesn’t repeat itself or employ a rhythm. This is why each of his energised brushstrokes has its unique weight. And when you see the real work, this physical object, you also notice this craftsman sometimes mixes painting and drawing in the Woman compositions, the adroit black lines that give definition to form being drawn into his pliable wet pigment with a stick of willow charcoal.[56]

The result, in purely technical terms, is paintwork rich and handsome, and you are always with de Kooning aware of talent original and strange. He has a rare gift for releasing energy—not of the impulsive, tightly strung sort but an energy of steady application, formed and sustained by commitment to value. Like Miles Davis’s jazz album Kind of Blue (1959), to fetch an obvious comparison within 1950s New York, he offers a solitary transport. And like that stirring modernist music, this is food for the soul; although an audience must set stylistic prejudice aside in order to savour the creative depths de Kooning sets in play.

Discussion of the Woman series reinforces how “Period eye” must be considered. Values change, so themes will have been construed differently in the past. Take how de Kooning’s women share the blonde, blue-eyed complexion favoured in American popular culture. This has led later writers to draw Hollywood actresses into the frame. Barber invokes Barbara Stanwyck’s performance in the 1947 thriller Double Indemnity. Some writers have cited Marilyn Monroe as if de Kooning is a precursor for the Pop Art of Warhol, Lichtenstein and Wesselmann.[57] But de Kooning was of an early pre-war generation of cinema audiences for whom “screen blonde” meant the saucy Brooklyn actress who triggered movie censorship—Mae West.[58]

West had embodied sexuality in a manner unmatched by anyone else. De Kooning’s biographers, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, found that his arrival in America corresponded exactly with West going to prison in 1926.[59] This was when the platinum blonde built her stage reputation by writing, and starring in, a sequence of sexual comedies—Sex, The Drag, The Wicked Age, The Pleasure Man, The Constant Sinner and Diamond Lil. Her first effort, Sex, led to the actress being hauled into court. Found guilty of corrupting the morals of minors, she was given the option of either ten days jail time or paying a fine. West chose the clink. There was a media storm, which she milked for publicity. Her next show, The Drag, a spoof on homosexuality, was banned in New York due to efforts by the Society for the Suppression of Vice. Again the actress used scandal to her benefit; “I believe in censorship,” she later quipped, “I’ve made a fortune out of it.” De Kooning and his chums during these years were enthralled by West’s provocative sexuality.[60]

Mae West crossed to cinema with the emergence of sound films. Theda Bara, the silent screen’s dusky femme fatale, had retired when talkies arrived. The void left by this mesmerising icon was felt by Hollywood when a German film, The Blue Angel, swept the world. Introducing Marlene Dietrich as the scantily-clad, garter-snapping blonde showgirl “Naughty Lola”, The Blue Angel revelled in the corrupting allure of Weimar-era Germany.[61] Outraged American audiences crammed into cinemas. Even the songs the sultry Dietrich sang became US hits, beginning with “Blonde Women”, an English translation of “Nimm Dich in Acht vor blonden Frau’n”.

Needing a scandalous blonde vamp, Paramount went knocking on Mae West’s stage door. The thirty-nine-year-old was no longer lithe, and young roles were not viable, so she adapted her “Diamond Lil” persona from the stage—a glamorous, husky voiced, sexually active and utterly guiltless adult woman. Allocated a bit part in a jejune romantic comedy, Night after Night, West clashed with its director, who didn’t want a newcomer in his film. George Raft, the male lead, talked him into letting the actress rewrite her few lines. She proceeded to add three risqué one-liners and an attention catching double-entendre: when a character exclaims “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds”, West replies, “Goodness had nothing to do with it.” That self-mocking candour shot her to instant screen stardom.[62]

Mae West dominated movies through the 1930s—de Kooning and his friends, all virile young men, were entranced by the Hollywood siren. Condemned by religious leaders, West’s racy dialogue in new scripts was relentlessly cut from 1934.

What was unaffected was how she looked. West never appeared nude, or even semi-clad, yet she exuded sensuality. She had form-fitting gowns designed, using pale shades in luxurious and sensual fabrics, which heightened her pale physicality. She also carried herself before the camera in a distinct manner. For her walk, she moved in the style of stage female impersonators to display her generously proportioned body. Then there was Mae West’s signature dance featured in each movie, The Shimmy, a graceful writhing which emphasised breasts and hips as she faces the camera. Once seen, it is never forgotten.

There is a pronounced echo of The Shimmy about that very animated blonde figure in several of de Kooning’s Woman paintings. He titled a large major canvas Mae West when he later developed the blonde woman theme.[63]

Common sense unravels Barber’s claims on artists’ clothing. Using publicity stills for a Hollywood movie to claim that de Kooning’s T-shirt was associated with violent abusive men is far-fetched. No link is given to connect cinema posters of Marlon Brando posing in A Streetcar Named Desire with the photograph of Willem de Kooning in his studio.[64] So the poster is not even circumstantial evidence.[65]

Why does de Kooning wear a T-shirt? People dress according to activity. This was why the New York School artists wore suits and ties in photographs taken at gallery openings, but T-shirts in snaps of the same artists in their studios. T-shirts were labourers’ attire, worn when painting. Contrary to Barber’s assertions, there are numerous snapshots of de Kooning, Pollock and Kline dressed in suits at social events, and of Rothko and Newman in their studios wearing work clothes.

We should also consider staged photographs. In The Machine in the Studio, a study of corporate culture and post-war New York art, the scholar Caroline Jones traces how photographs of artists were styled. Advertising savvy was in the air, with Madison Avenue devising formulas for photographs which promoted the new art. In the case of Abstract Expressionism, artists were shown alone in their studios. “The men hold or smoke stubby cigarettes, brows furrowed and gaze averted,” Jones points out.[66]

Post-war staged photographs famously began in 1949 when Arnold Newman was sent to cover Jackson Pollock for Life magazine (below). Existentialism was in vogue, and the researcher supervising the assignment wanted shots which made the artist appear an insolent modern rebel. So Newman made Pollock put on paint-spattered denim jacket and jeans. Some images were also modelled on a press photo of Albert Camus with a cigarette hanging from the side of his mouth. The results were arresting, that Life photospread placing Pollock in the public eye. But those historic shots were staged.[67]

Pollock himself was ragged by other artists over the most contrived images of the 1950s. Mocking comments were made about Existentialism, because the image-conscious Pollock would don black jeans and matching black T-shirt when a photographer was expected. Painters were amused by one shot of Pollock smoking in anguished solitude as he sat on the running board of a Model-A jalopy. The wise-cracking critic Harold Rosenberg dubbed it the “L’il Abner” photo.

This is the context for the photograph of Willem and Elaine de Kooning used by Barber and feminist academics. It was taken by Hans Namuth, a young commercial photographer trying to establish himself.[68] He had already spent days shooting Jackson Pollock working in the studio-barn beside his house at Springs, Long Island, later selling shots to the large format advertising journal Portfolio. Those craftily posed images of Pollock dripping and pouring paint on canvases are still reproduced as art book illustrations.

Namuth had induced Pollock’s wife Lee to appear in some shots seated on a stool, watching her husband paint. Friends were amused when they saw the obviously staged photographs. Some teased the forthright Lee for posing as a dutiful and passive wife.

On August 23, 1953, three months after de Kooning’s Woman exhibition, Hans Namuth visited a big house on Jericho Lane at patrician East Hampton. It was leased by the collectors Leo and Eleana Castelli, and the de Koonings were their summer guests. Namuth hoped to take shots of the artist he could sell to a magazine, so the couple posed for him on the back porch which de Kooning was using as a studio. By her own account, Elaine wanted to be photographed with a Woman painting: “I said, ‘Take me in front of the painting to demonstrate, once and for all, that it has nothing to do with me’.”[69] She was irritated by jokes on the art scene about the series portraying her, and she would point out there was no trace of her own Irish complexion in them, of her chestnut hair and warm hazel eyes.

Namuth proposed portraying de Kooning working on an abstraction as his wife sat watching, like the much earlier Pollock shots. The couple had other ideas. Willem struck a pose standing beside a Woman canvas, loosely crossing his arms, but Elaine had no intention of acting the submissive wife. So when Namuth got her to sit, she took the expression used for male artists: holding cigarette, furrowed brow, gaze averted. That shot was not published for thirty-one years.[70] Yet it is the photograph Barber reproduces, and uses for her analysis.

Namuth took more photographs in that session. Some show Elaine as she requested, standing as an equal with her husband, his unfinished abstraction positioned between them. This was how the couple wished to be seen. Barber does not mention those other shots.

Willem de Kooning was puzzled at the ugliness of the Woman paintings. “I didn’t mean to make them such monsters,” he said. “I always started with the idea of a young person, a beautiful woman. I noticed them change. Somebody would step out …”[71] He often referred to his visual sources when discussing the works, like the Venus of Willendorf, which he knew from books. Wanting to see other ancient images, he visited the Metropolitan Museum to contemplate the Cycladic and Sumerian figurines: “I look at them now and they seem vociferous and ferocious,” he explained in 1960. “I think it had to do with the idea of the idol, the oracle …”[72]

Another mentioned source were the pervasive images of glamorised women seen in magazines, posters and advertising hoardings. As well, de Kooning sometimes scrutinised figures in the steady flow of New Yorkers shopping on nearby 14th Street. [73]

Then there was art history. Given he was painting before the publication of Kenneth Clark’s watershed book The Nude (1956) de Kooning’s view of the female form was not influenced by the diagnostic categories popularised by that study (Venus, Energy, Pathos, Ecstasy, Northern Gothic).[74] Instead he relied on his working knowledge of pictures, starting with what he had absorbed as a student in the Netherlands: as Robert Hughes found, “the ghosts of Dutch and Flemish baroque figure paintings kept jolting de Kooning’s elbow”.[75]

And there were contemporary influences. Elaine de Kooning has spoken of Alberto Giacometti’s first New York exhibition in winter 1948. It was held in the respected Pierre Matisse Gallery, and her husband was profoundly moved by the tall skinny sculptures of standing women: they “knocked him out—it was crucial, it looked like the work of a civilisation, not one man”. Then in 1950, when he was painting the Woman paintings, de Kooning was moved by the carnal meatiness of Chaim Soutine’s painted figures, which he encountered in a 1950 survey of the artist at the Museum of Modern Art: “I’ve always been crazy about Soutine,” de Kooning admitted. “It’s the lushness of the paint … a certain fleshiness in his work.”[76] A few months later he also took solace from the ungainly, paint-encrusted Corps des Dames compositions of an emerging French artist named Jean Dubuffet, which were also exhibited at Pierre Matisse’s mid-town gallery.

Above all else there was a striking potential source for the frightening women, known to close friends, which de Kooning himself was ever reluctant to name.

Men who violently abuse women do not broadcast their inclinations. Expert psychologists must look to other behavioural clues because display is not part of the abuser’s pathology. Concealment is crucial to them. This is why Special Agent Dr John Douglas, one of the FBI psychologists who developed criminal profiling, warns against amateur analysis to find a violent abuser.[77] These people are adept at avoiding detection, so amateur efforts to identify an abuser via works of art will be fruitless. Abusive men may savour violent pornography, but they do not paint their own pictures of what they do to women, let alone produce such work for public exhibition.[78] Then again, sometimes an abuser’s victims will make pictures which allude to the ordeal they endured.

Willem de Kooning was an abuse survivor. Early life in a waterfront slum left the artist with more than a short stature and persistent dental problems: his biographers chart a deprived childhood shaped by cruel abuse and harsh beatings.[79]

If the artist’s father, Leendert de Kooning, possessed a reserved personality, his mother, Cornelia, was a volatile attention-seeker who, zig-zagging between rancour and affection, bullied her family. After nearly a decade of this, Leendert divorced his wife, citing her ill-treatment and cruelty. But Cornelia was given custody of the children, so nine-year-old Marie and four-year-old Willem still endured their unpredictable mother’s rages.[80] Besides beating the small boy with a clog, there were psychological punishments. Usually Cornelia concluded a thrashing by locking him in a cupboard.[81] He had a traumatic memory of one occasion when she hid in a closet then sprang out waving a kitchen knife and stood over him.[82]


He escaped this daily ordeal four years after the parental divorce when he went to live with his father. Mind you, after she remarried and had another child, Cornelia inflicted her foul-mouthed, bruising treatment on Koos, her new son. Koos says every day he was “shown the four corners of the room”, a Dutch expression for a hard beating.[83]

In adulthood, Willem de Kooning coped with this childhood abuse by driving it from his mind: “I tried to avoid thinking of this aspect of my life. In this way I protected myself from my own feelings.”[84] However, friends noticed he was often unconsciously on guard for sudden attack; and he would try to lose himself in drink.[85]

De Kooning was fairly successful in containing his troubled past until the summer of 1954, when he arranged for his septuagenarian mother to visit New York.[86] The émigré son wished to show he had made good. Grey-haired Cornelia would have none of that; and needled her adult offspring, tried to provoke and wound.[87] Speaking in Dutch, with a heavy Rotterdam accent, Cornelia maligned his American friends, his wife Elaine, his own paintings. She probably assumed no one understood, although there were enough German speakers in the de Koonings’ circle and neighbourhood to catch her nastiness.

If Cornelia was ingratiating charm and smiles to others, her verbal aggression towards Willem was noticed, and how she tried to goad him into quarrels: “She loved a good screaming match,” recalled the painter Joan Ward.[88] As the summer rolled on Willem struggled with his feelings about her, becoming agitated and jumpy. He also slid off the wagon after moderating his drinking for some months. Friends watched de Kooning use alcohol to get through his mother’s visit.[89] He needed a couple of stiff ones before dealing with Cornelia, and then to unwind afterwards.

The feminist interpretation of Willem de Kooning’s Woman series avoids any mention of his troubled childhood, or the works’ potential reference to an abusive mother. But might it be that some aspect of those monstrous paintings allude to this background? When he said, “Maybe I was painting the woman in me,” was this a cryptic allusion to memories that ever haunted him? Thomas Hess, the editor of ARTnews and one of de Kooning’s closest friends, always thought so.[90] Hess would point to how those bulky figures have Cornelia’s pale Dutch complexion and her hard black eyes. Elaine was of a similar opinion, saying the eyes were a give-away.[91]

Besides Cornelia’s eyes and ferocious mouth, de Kooning’s biographers Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan point to the hands. Cornelia disliked touching children, only doing so for display when in public.[92] Checking the Woman paintings, hands are either claw-like or missing. Stevens and Swan suggest the viewpoint used in the paintings, how the figure is right against the viewer, “is that of a child looking up at an adult”.[93] This ties in with Elaine de Kooning’s remark that the paintings are emphatically about a relationship, not just a figure. Even the Museum of Modern Art’s authoritative de Kooning catalogue, which is cautious in what it says of his youth, states that when making the Woman compositions the artist was thinking of “his own powerful mother, and his dislike of her”.[94]

It is surely significant here, too, that de Kooning produced the Woman paintings during a phase of emotional upheaval and troubled self-searching. His marriage was unravelling at the time. It was not an angry, embittered break. There was no rancour. Willem and Elaine felt themselves drifting apart. Theirs had long been an “open marriage”, although several months earlier Elaine had left Willem for a spell, temporarily moving in with a boyfriend.

So those memorable photographs of the de Koonings posing before an unfinished Woman painting had been taken during the final months they were together. The couple were attempting a last go at their marriage when summering at the Hamptons. Come autumn, they agreed to live apart. And instead of completing the work-in-progress seen in the studio shots, Willem de Kooning just gave up on it and wiped the canvas clean.


[1] Most of the Woman paintings were produced in a studio at 88 East 10th Street that de Kooning moved into during 1950.

[2] David Anfam ed., Abstract Expressionism, Royal Academy of the Arts, London, 2016, p.44.

[3] John Elderfield ed., De Kooning: A Retrospective, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011.

[4] Fionna Barber, “Abstract Expressionism and Masculinity’, in Paul Wood ed., Varieties of Modernism, Open University with Yale University Press, New Haven, 2004, pp.144-186.

[5] Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change, BBC Books, London, 1980, pp.294-6.

[6] Barber, “Abstract Expressionism and Masculinity’, op. cit., p.176.

[7] Carol Duncan, “The MoMA’s Hot Mamas” (1989), in The Aesthetics of Power: Essays in Critical Art History, CUP, Cambridge, 1993, p.194 & 198.

[8] Barber, “Abstract Expressionism and Masculinity’, op. cit., p.181.

[9] Barber, “Abstract Expressionism and Masculinity’, op. cit., p.181.

[10] Barber, “Abstract Expressionism and Masculinity’, op. cit., pp.149-54, 183.

[11] Barber, “Abstract Expressionism and Masculinity’, op. cit., p.176.

[12] Barber, “Abstract Expressionism and Masculinity’, op. cit., p.174.

[13] Barber, “Abstract Expressionism and Masculinity’, op. cit., p.166.

[14] Barber, “Abstract Expressionism and Masculinity’, op. cit., p.166.

[15] Barber, “Abstract Expressionism and Masculinity’, op. cit., p.166.

[16] Barber, “Abstract Expressionism and Masculinity’, op. cit., p.166.

[17] Barber, “Abstract Expressionism and Masculinity’, op. cit., p.166.

[18] Barber, “Abstract Expressionism and Masculinity’, op. cit., p.167.

[19] Duncan White, Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War, Little Brown, London, 2019, pp.455-83.

[20] Sinyavsky reportedly said:. “An artistic work does not express political views. You wouldn’t ask Pushkin or Gogol about their politics. My works reflect my attitudes to the world, not politics.” There were expressions of indignation in the room to this.

[21] Jonathan Bate, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life, Harper Collins, London, 2015, p.346.

[22] Bate, Ted Hughes, op.cit. p.347-9.

[23] Bate, Ted Hughes, op.cit. p.441.

[24] Bate, Ted Hughes, op.cit. p.441.

[25] Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, rev. ed., Picador, London, 1994, p10.

[26] Barber, “Abstract Expressionism and Masculinity’, op. cit., p.162.

[27] Barber, “Abstract Expressionism and Masculinity’, op. cit., p.162.

[28] Steven Naifeh & Gregory White-Smith, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, Pimlico, London, 1992, p.553; on the Greenbergs” monthly visits to the Pollocks see Janice van Horne, A Complicated Marriage: My Life with Clement Greenberg, Counterpoint Press, Berkeley, Calif., 2012, pp.119-122.

[29] Stephen Polcari, Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991, p.254; cf. Naifeh & White-Smith, Jackson Pollock, op.cit., p.553.

[30] Naifeh & White-Smith, Jackson Pollock, op.cit., p.566.

[31] Barber, “Abstract Expressionism and Masculinity’, op. cit., p.162.

[32] Barber, “Abstract Expressionism and Masculinity’, op. cit., p.164.

[33] Barber, “Abstract Expressionism and Masculinity’, op. cit., p.151.

[34] Talk among progressive art historians and critics of the “modernist grid” stemmed from the writings of Rosalind Krauss, particularly her major book, Passages in Modern Sculpture, an analytical history of modernist sculpture. However, most who used the term “modernist grid” did not apply it in the manner employed by Krauss, and the suggestion later adopted by Feminists that the grid is a masculine creative trait is not found in her book. Rosalind Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture, Viking Press, New York, 1977, esp. ch.2 & 5; also Hannah Higgins, The Grid Book, MIT Press, Massacusetts, 2009.

[35] Clement Greenberg, “American-Type Painting” (1955), in John O’Brian ed., Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays & Criticism, Chicago, Uni. Chicago Press, vol.3, p.222.

[36] Barber, “Abstract Expressionism and Masculinity’, op. cit., p.174

[37] Robert Rosenblum, “The Fatal Women of de Kooning and Picasso,” Art News, Oct. 1985, p.100.

[38] Barber, “Abstract Expressionism and Masculinity’, op. cit., p.174.

[39] Barber, “Abstract Expressionism and Masculinity’, op. cit., p.175.

[40] Frank O’Hara, “Jackson Pollock” (1959), Frank O’Hara: Art Chronicles 1954-1966, Braziller, New York, 1975, p.35.

[41] O’Hara, “Jackson Pollock’, op. cit. p.35.

[42] Elderfield, de Kooning, op. cit., pp,26-8, esp.27.

[43] Elderfield, de Kooning, op. cit., pp,26-7.

[44] Naifeh & White-Smith, Jackson Pollock, op.cit., p.715; Elderfield, de Kooning, op. cit., p243; Mark Stevens & Annalyn Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, Knopf, New York, 2005, p.358.

[45] Quoted in Elderfield, de Kooning, op. cit., p.51.

[46] An added incentuve was that his sister, Marie, and her young family had settled in Amsterdam in 1919. De Kooning stayed with them, and visited museums. His brother-in-law Dirk Breedveld sometimes accompanied him. Elderfield, de Kooning, op. cit., p.51.

[47] When the young de Kooning first landed commercial work with a Manhattan design firm, he found American standards were low: “Old-World standards need not be met. Clients wanted flash, not solid craftsmanship. De Kooning supplied it with ease.” –Carter Rattcliff, “An Improvised Community,” in Anfam, Abstract Expressionism, op. cit., p.71.

[48] Stevens & Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, op. cit., p.105; Jonathan Fineberg, Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being, Laurence King, London, second edn, 2000, p.76.

[49] Or, in the words of the art historian Richard Schiff, “[de Kooning] deployed the standards of the genre and destabilised them.” Richard Schiff, Between Sense and De Kooning, Reaktion Books, London, 2011, p.52.

[50] Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, Picador, New York, 2005, pp.83.

[51] Quoted in Elderfield, Willem de Kooning, op. cit., p.243

[52] David Salle, “Playing it Cool,” New York Review of Books, 18 Jan. 2018

[53] This may be why painting endures despite countless predictions that technological progress would end it.

[54] As Roseberg put it, “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act… What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters” (1952) in The Tradition of the New, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1960, p.25. See also Norman Kleebatt ed., Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art 1940-1978, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008, esp. the articles Irving Sandler, “Clement and Harold Rosenberg: Convergences and Differences,” Norman Kleeblatt, “Greenberg, Rosenberg, and Postwar American Art,” and Debra Balken, “Harold Rosenberg and the American Action Painters’; also Stevens & Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, op. cit., pp.350-57.

[55] Rosenberg, “American Action Painters,” op.cit., p.30.

[56] De Kooning prefers to draw with either willow and oak charcoal, using a rather crumbly willow in the Woman paintings I have scrutinised on museum visits.

[57] Policari, Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience, op.cit., p.286

[58] Stevens & Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, op. cit., p.297.

[59] Stevens & Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, op. cit., p.75.

[60] Stevens & Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, op. cit., p.75.

[61] Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (1947), Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1974, p.217; also Eric Rhode, A History of the Cinema: From its Origins to 1970, Allen Lane, London, 1976, pp.204-6.

[62] Rhode, A History of the Cinema, op.cit., p.319.

[63] Polcari, Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience, op.cit., p.286. There is also a later subordinate piece titled Marilyn Monroe.

[64] Barber’s point stems from, and twists, a comment on the same photograph in Stephen Polcari’s book. In passing, he made a casual rhetorical question whether it was coincidental that de Kooning’s attire was similar to Brando’s in the movie poster. Barber repeats and embellishes the point, treating it as firm evidence, although she does not acknowledge Polcari as the source in her footnotes. Policari, Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience, op.cit., p.291

[65] Elsewhere in her article, Barber claims that due to the high number of women in the wartime labour force, American men felt their masculinity challenged in the post-war period. This saw “regressive” gender roles “polarised’, with “an enforced heterosexuality” imposed upon American society. No source is given for this information. Barber further adds that parallel to its intensive searches for communists, the FBI also hunted “homosexuals in an attempt to root out “sex perverts” who posed a threat to national security.” Again no source is given for this. Barber, “Abstract Expressionism and Masculinity’, op. cit., p.154.

[66] Caroline Jones, Machine in the Studio: Constructing the Postwar American Artist, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1996, p32.

[67] Naifeh & White-Smith, Jackson Pollock, op.cit., pp.593-5.

[68] Naifeh & White-Smith, Jackson Pollock, op.cit., pp.617-21.

[69] Stevens & Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, op. cit., p.344. Likewise, on another occasion Elaine de Kooning said being photographed with the painting to “establish once and for all that I did not pose for these ferocious women.” Fineberg, Strategies of Being, op. cit., p.81, p.81.

[70] Jones, Machine in the Studio, op.cit., p.38.

[71] Tomkins, Off the Wall, op.cit., p.84; Willem de Kooning, “What Abstract Art Means to Me,” Museum of Modern Art Bulletin, XVIII, No.3 (Spring 1951).

[72] Willem de Kooning interviewed by David Sylvester, BBC, 3 Dec. 1960; Fineberg, Strategies of Being, op. cit., p.82.

[73] Fineberg, Strategies of Being, op. cit., p.81.

[74] Richard Shone & John-Paul Stonard, The Books that Shaped Art History: From Gombrich and Greenberg to Alpers and Krauss, Thames & Hudson, London, 2013, ch.8; Kenneth Clark, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, John Murray, London, 1956.

[75] Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, Harvill Press, London, 1997, p.478.

[76] Hughes, Shock of the New, op. cit., p.294.

[77] John Douglas & Mark Olshaker, Mindhunter: Inside the FBI Elite Serial Crime Unit (1997), new edn, Arrow Books, London, 2017, p.366.

[78] The hazards of using artistic works to reveal a painter’s psychology is evident in Dr Barber’s very positive discussion of Clyfford Still’s compositions. But Still is remembered as a chauvinist in Jenny (Janice) Greenberg’s memoirs. The critic’s wife says he ignored women completely at artists” gatherings, and dominated his fawning wife and daughter. Janice van Horne, A Complicated Marriage: My Life with Clement Greenberg, Counterpoint Press, Berkeley, Calif., 2012, pp.119-122

[79] Stevens & Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, op. cit., p.4.

[80] Stevens & Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, op. cit., pp.9-10, 339.

[81] Stevens & Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, op. cit., p.12.

[82] Stevens & Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, op. cit., p.12.

[83] Stevens & Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, op. cit., p.12.

[84] Stevens & Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, op. cit., p.11.

[85] Stevens & Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, op. cit., p.339.

[86] Stevens & Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, op. cit., pp. 374-8.

[87] Stevens & Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, op. cit., p.376.

[88] Stevens & Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, op. cit., p.376.

[89] Stevens & Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, op. cit., p.376.

[90] Thomas Hess, Willem de Kooning, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1968, p.73; Fineberg, Strategies of Being, op. cit., p.81; Hughes, American Visions, op.cit., pp.478-9. Jackson Pollock’s biographers suggest he also suspected Cornelia de Kooning was behind the Woman paintings. Naifeh & White-Smith, Jackson Pollock, op.cit., p.715.

[91] Stevens & Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, op. cit., p.344.

[92] Stevens & Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, op. cit., p.339.

[93] Stevens & Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, op. cit., p.339.

[94] Elderfield, de Kooning, op. cit., p.272.

One thought on “Willem de Kooning and his ‘Woman’ Series

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    The life of the artists is always going to seem relevant to the viewer, who will read into the painting aspects of that life if they know anything about the artist, and will create their own images about the artist’s state of mind if they don’t. It is the human imagination at work in the viewer as well as the painter, a tension in all art. If this interpretive process is assisted by hunky photographs of 50’s maleness in T-shirts, or even a meme about Vincent anguishing in Arles taking his ear (I’ve been musing on this lately), then so much the better say those who must make these sorts of leaps in order to sense the emotion or even the worth of a painting. Hence feminists will see misogyny in what men create and likely a sense of oppression in the things women paint: unless they see paintings by women artists as a clarion cry towards victory over a patriarchy.

    Personally, I prefer to look first, and perhaps later come to some sense of appreciation about what impelled the artwork. Picasso’s Guernica, for instance, a massive overpowering wall-covering canvas when you stand before it, as I did, is dominated by fierce imagery in two animals, that of the roaring atavistic European bull and the teeth-snapping war horse, and the soldier at the base has sword, symbol of countless European wars and skirmishes going right back to the Iron Age, and also the sign of the Cross of Christ. The interrogative technological light of a single lightbulb is encased in the age-old imagery of the Mediterranean seeing eye of fate, or God, and, as I saw it, a semi-disembodied mythical grail maiden is holding a lamp of hope. All around is hell and chaos with disarticulated limbs and to the left a Madonna figure of a mother and child, on the right a father shaking his fist in fury at this outrage. It is a monochromatic shriek against wartime bombing, yes, but so much more too, a comment against the ancient tradition of war, battles and inhumanity, this time raining murder from the skies. Unforgettable. Inexpressibly angry, imbued with a depth Spanish culture, and also with terrible pathos.

    Not everyone would have my interests in the ancient religious rituals and traditions of an Indo-European Europe to provide this interpretation, and many might prefer to simply see people being cruelly bombed and obliterated, along with animals in the peasant farmyard (yet I had just visited Guernica, and it was actually a sizeable town even during the Spanish Civil War and Nazi bombing about which Picasso painted this protest work). Whatever Picasso intended with his imagery, it certainly packs a punch.

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