Although De Kooning had been painting images of women since 1947, and embarked upon Woman I (coll. The Museum of Modern Art, New York), his most monumental expression of this theme, in 1950. It was not completed until two years later, and in fact, De Kooning had even abandoned it for a time, about eighteen months after beginning it. His friends noted that the picture had been painted over countless times and photographs taken at six different stages of its evolution attest to the radical reworking this image underwent. The artist would alternately break down his subject into a myriad of jagged, sliver-like shapes, and then flatten out and simplify his forms. He would occassionally apply tracing paper to certain areas and paint over it, to test new ideas; when pulled away, this would leave encrustations of paint around the edges.
Woman I was finally completed in 1952, and along with five other versions of woman, it was exhibited at De Koonings third one-man show at the Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, in March, 1953. Viewers were shocked at the ferocity of the image, much was made of the artists alleged misogyny, and the growing ranks of abstract artists condemned such a blatent return to the figure.
The present drawing is one of numerous studies De Kooning executed in charcoal, pencil or pastel during this period. They reveal the lengths to which the artist worked in order to group and define the structure of the overwhelming subject. Indeed, the layered, fractured look of Woman I owes much to drawing with the brush, the product of ? gestures of hand and wrist, some broadly expansive, others nervously6 small.
De Kooning's success at evoking the intense, even ? physicality of his subject is achieved ultimately by structered means through drawing, and this structure is most readily grasped in drawings such as the present one. The artist here juxtaposes open forms with heavily reinforced contours and shaded areas. The effect is at once flat and sculptural, and recalls an equally signal and ground-breaking work in the evolution of twentieth century painting, Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon (coll. The Museum of Modern Art, New York), a picture which also treats the image of woman in a violent and shocking manner.