As an art historian I am often asked: “what is art?” My answer is: anything is art if someone says its art and the person listening agrees or just accepts the speaker’s opinion. Outside the academic community thinking about what art is usually prompted by abstract images or objects that seem to have no subject and/or seem require little skill. Statements like “it is just a sloppy painting of a woman” and “my kid could do that” are true, your kid probably can paint a woman on canvas. What is the difference between a child’s painting and Willem de Kooning’s Woman III, 1952-3 worth $137.2 million USD? In the case of de Kooning’s series of women painting (and all of art) it is being in the right place at the right time so that influential art critics call it art and others, artists, art historians, museum directors, rich patrons and the public, accept their opinion. 


Instead of attempting to answer the broad question “what is art?” this article shows how one painting many find ugly and incomprehensible has a value of more than a million dollar and a highlight of one of the world’s most respected museums. Willem de Kooning’s Woman I, 1950-2, now owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City (MoMA) is one in his series of women paintings and arguably his most famous and important work. Over time analysis, reception and opinion change and conflict and each interpretation and reinterpretation is significant, but to understand the layers meanings assigned to the painting we must go to the beginning.


Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg are the two New York City art critics credited for distinct methods of reading and evaluating works of art and for choosing artists of a particular style, which is now identified as Abstract Expressionism. Both Greenberg and Rosenberg agreed that formal analysis, a way of describing an image through basic elements of art such as line, shape and form, space, color and texture. A formal analysis of Woman I would point out things like: the size and features of the woman that covers most of the canvas, disorienting lines and outlines, a degree of compositional balance and order, descriptive and expressive color and brushwork, and uneven texture.


While Greenberg and Rosenberg rarely agreed, they agreed that de Kooning’s work was part of a new style called Abstract Expressionism. The style emerged in New York City in the 1940s and 1950s. Its characteristics are: abstract art with expressive and energetic brushwork, all-over composition and textured surfaces. De Kooning’s work took on these formal qualities in the mid 1940s when he moved from Cubist inspired figural paintings to abstract art. De Kooning retained the formal elements of Abstract Expressionism when he returned to painting the figure with Woman I and the subsequent Women series.


When de Kooning first exhibited his Women series there was debate about whether a figural painting is in the style of Abstract Expressionism. Greenberg argued that figural art had no place in the new style because returning to the figure undid the progress of art towards making the medium the only meaning of art. Rosenberg theoretical conclusion was different. He includes work, figural or not, as Abstract Expressionist if the process of creation was “action painting.”  Action painting defined art as the event when artist and medium met in the act of creation. Both critics underscore the uniqueness and originality of the movement, describing it as breaking with past artistic styles.


Only by excluding omit key elements of a formalist analysis can the Greenberg and Rosenberg argue that de Kooning’s Women had no art historical precedent. While Woman I introduced a new approach to art it also fit in with the traditional portraiture. A seated woman, in a frontal position looking out at the viewer is a composition used by artists such as Rembrandt, Picasso and Matisse. De Kooning saw examples of portraits by these and other artists in New York City galleries and museums.


De Kooning’s interest in the figure began with his academic training in Holland. In his early work, the artist faithfully represents his subject. Woman I is a bridge between de Kooning’s earlier and later portraits. By the 1940s, de Kooning’s flattened and abstracted his portraits and increasingly portrayed seated women in paintings like Seated Woman, 1940. In portraits made after Woman I, de Kooning eliminates the figure in favor of canvases covered with expressive brushstrokes in an all over composition. In Woman I, de Kooning represents the seated frontal woman in the earlier Seated Woman with the technique of the later Woman in Landscape III, 1969.


In the late 1940s and 1950s Greenberg and Rosenberg were looking for a new, modern art style. They created one in Abstract Expressionism and choose Woman I, not because of tis connection to the history of art but because of its abstract and expressionist qualities that fit into the style they were defining. Why was this painting called art? Because two influential critics said it was part of an important emerging art style and artists, museum directors and, eventually, the public accepted their opinion.