"To understand this man, you have to understand that he's been compulsively involved with painting all his life. It's like he's on automatic pilot, and it doesn't make any difference whether he knows what he's doing or not. He always thought if you knew what you were doing, you were going in the wrong direction, because then it's just craft...He knows automatically what to do and how to do it. There's no left-brain thinking, no logic, no rationale. He's solely thinking that it feels as if there ought to be a darker colour, some vague nudging in his mind. And he listens
to that" (Conrad Fried, quoted in De Kooning, The Late Paintings, the 1980s, exh. cat. San Francisco, 1996, p. 68).
In 1980 de Kooning made the last of the dramatic shifts in style that had characterised much of his artistic career. Entering what would prove to be the last phase of his art, de Kooning began to paint in a more deliberate, assured and reductive way than he had ever done before. His raw splashes of paint and the energetic semi-random sweeps of a heavily-laden brush were replaced in his new works by a series of assured meandering ribbons of paint tracing their way over an infinite white background. Simpler, but no less mysterious, these distinctive lines generated a sense of a cohesive and animated surface in much the same way as his earlier work but in a gentler and altogether more elegant and refined manner. "I am becoming freer" de Kooning observed at this time (1983), "I feel that I have found myself more, the sense that I have all my strength at my command. I think you can do miracles with what you have if you accept it...I am more certain the way I use paint and the brush" (de Kooning, quoted in Willem de Kooning, exh. cat. London, 1995, p. 199).
As a result of this new, more relaxed assuredness, much of the former aggression and physical struggle of de Kooning's work disappeared in his late work in favour of a 'purer' way of painting. This feature of de Kooning's late work reflected not only the artist's maturity and familiarisation with his working practice but also, it seems, the profound influence of Matisse.
For much of his life de Kooning had keenly felt himself to be living under the shadow of the influence of Picasso - "the one to beat" as he often referred him. While de Kooning's genius with line and the raw energy, violence even, of works like his 'Woman' series had often outdone Picasso, overall de Kooning had never really rivaled Picasso's stature as the greatest living artist. By the late 1970s, such competitive considerations seem to matter less to de Kooning and he found himself becoming more beguiled by the example of artists whose late work had marked a new departure. 'Old man Monet' or 'Old man Cézanne' he often referred to, and especially, Henri Matisse. According to his assistant Tom Ferrara, Matisse was a regular topic of de Kooning's conversation throughout the 1980s. It was the pure 'uncomplicatedness' of Matisse's paintings, de Kooning told him that appealed. "There is no ism there - he's just painting a painting" he told Courtney Sale in 1982, and it was this aspect that de Kooning now found he wanted to achieve with his own work. To reduce his former anxieties and struggle and to remove the psychological overtones from his work, letting it evolve into the purest form of itself. Previously always tense and even nervous about his art, de Kooning, who through the intervention of his wife Elaine, had now finally abandoned his addiction to alcohol which had debilitated him for much of the late 1970s, was now at ease with his art and with his ability. 'You get old, you get used to yourself' he remarked, 'I used to be so nervous I got palpitations. Now I don't have that trouble. I see the canvas, and I begin...But you have to keep on the very edge of something, all the time, or the picture dies" (de Kooning quoted in Willem de Kooning, exh. cat. London, 1995, p. 199).
As films of de Kooning working on his late paintings show, de Kooning worked swiftly and fluidly on his paintings of the 1980s, indeed his productivity increased immeasurably during this period. As always de Kooning often used passages from drawings and earlier paintings as well as photographs of other works in various states of completion, as the starting point for his work. He also retained the practice of working on several paintings at the same time. In addition, in the mid-1980s he began to use a technique he had long talked about using and had even, famously, persuaded Franz Kline to use in the 1950s; the magnification and projection of his own images as prompts for painting. Indeed, many of the lines that define the form of his paintings of the 1980s were directly traced from projected lines of earlier works directly onto his canvas.
These processes allowed again for the distilling of his earlier painterly practices into a more refined form, but de Kooning still continued the practice of painting and scraping off in the build up of the surface of his paintings that he had used in so many earlier works. He was however more reluctant to let these corrections show through the surface so clearly and often overpainted his amendments with the thick white background of these late paintings. It is this seemingly infinite white space of the backgrounds of the 1980s paintings that defines them. Having reduced his painterly means to what, in the end, he was always best at, the incisive and intuitive touch of his line, he set this against the open emptiness of an infinite white space. In this way these works are reflective of not only de Kooning's new-found sobriety and the coming to terms with himself that he established in his self-imposed isolation on Long Island but also of his decision to stubbornly continue to work into his old age, as he had always done, frequently and diligently using the act of painting as a very real and vital way in which to live. As a work like Untitled XVIII, illustrates, it is as if, in his work of the 1980s, de Kooning finally became reconciled to both himself and his innately gifted graphic ability to draw with paint. In the pure reductive forms of these works he not only developed a resolute assuredness but he also seemed finally, to be unashamedly reveling in the fundamental simplicity of his art.