Seminal de Kooning to star in New York

Ten years after becoming the most expensive post-war painting ever sold at auction, Untitled XXV returns to Christie’s as a highlight of the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 15 November

Painted in 1977, Untitled XXV  is one of a remarkable series of large canvases that Willem de Kooning produced during a sudden burst of activity in the mid-1970s. This important work returns to Christie’s New York exactly ten years after it became the most expensive post-war painting ever sold at auction, setting a new world record for the artist. Estimated in the region of $40 million, it is set to lead the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale in New York on 15 November.

In the spring of 1975, having become absorbed in the making of sculpture, de Kooning found himself once again revelling in the act of painting. Inspired by the watery landscapes near his home in Springs, Long Island, he became increasingly preoccupied with the light and topography of his immediate environment around Louse Point. When he moved to the area, de Kooning observed in 1976, ‘everything seemed self-evident. The space, the light, the trees — I just accepted it without thinking about it much. Now I look around with new eyes. I think it’s all a kind of miracle.’

At Louse Point, de Kooning would spend hours observing the water, captivated by its ability to reflect and merge the imagery of the land, sky, figures and itself, in a constantly shifting abstract surface of colour and form. It was this mercurial effect that he began to try to emulate in his paintings.

Although often completely abstract, hints of natural or figurative forms sometimes emerge in the paintings of this period — fleeting visual moments that suggest the real world of nature and objects, as well as the path of the painterly process and the passage of time. Emulating the continuous flux of the natural world and enthralled by the new fluidity that he had discovered in these looser, freer, but also more complex works, de Kooning remarked that he had the ‘feeling of being on the other side of nature’.

Revitalised by his recent explorations in sculpture and rejuvenated by an ever-deepening love affair with a young woman, Emilie Kilgore, de Kooning was able to sustain this output for a period of nearly four years. ‘I made those paintings one after the other, no trouble at all,’ he said. ‘I couldn't miss. It's a nice feeling. It's strange. It's a man at a gambling table (who) feels that he can't lose. But when he walks away with the dough, he knows that he can't do that again.’

The years from 1975 to 1978 proved to be a fruitful period for de Kooning, and are now viewed by scholars as the apex of the artist’s oeuvre, with 1977 a particular highpoint. Curator David Sylvester called this year de Kooning’s annus mirabilis, writing that the works from 1977 ‘belong with the paintings made at the same age by artists such as Monet and Renoir and Bonnard and, of course, Titian.’ 

Untitled XXV marks de Kooning’s joyous return to the medium that had defined his storied career. Somehow rooted in nature yet seemingly devoid of any figurative form, the painting articulates a landscape brought alive with a sense of the human through the length, scale, form and emotive power of de Kooning’s vigorous brushwork.

Viewing for Untitled XXV begins on 1 October at Christie’s on King Street, London.