With fluid serpentine curves and languid, sinuous lines, Willem de Kooning's Untitled, painted in 1987, reintroduces the full color palette back into the artist's late paintings. Seeking throughout his life to capture the indeterminate, fluid state between figuration and abstraction, the artist radically departed from the lush pastorals of the 1970s in the elegantly spare paintings of his last great cycle. Retreating to a palette of primary colors earlier in the decade, in 1987 de Kooning announced, "I'm back to a full palette with off-toned colors." He observed, "Before, it was about knowing what I didn't know. Now, it's about not knowing that I know" (W. de Kooning, quoted in E. Lieber, Willem de Kooning: Reflections in the Studio, New York, 2000, p. 51).
So corporeal is de Kooning's art that even the most abstract works hover on the edge of figuration. Hailed as an "action painter" by the critic Harold Rosenberg, Untitled materializes in the pitched battle between near-explosive tensions and unifying passages of calm. Floating near the upper right corner, languidly winding purple ribbons evoke the bodily presence of a slumbering muse; while a cascade of whiplashed red strokes rhythmically emerging from the bottom softly reflect the reclining form. Contours of every kind parade around the canvas, pushing and pulling the composition into a state of ever-moving tension. Biomorphic shapes evolve out of the rolling curves of red, blue, purple, pink, and yellow. Yet, the allusions and external imagery are only secondary to the commanding presence of the glowing canvas with flowing lines of paint, in this highly abstract composition.
Recalling his early enamel works of the 1940s, de Kooning's final series of paintings revert to the drawing as the essential compositional component. As with his earlier works, he had deliberately reduced his palette and purged his work of excessive detail. Yet, the luminosity and utter effortlessness of Untitled's lyrical composition was achieved through a scrupulous process in which de Kooning labored mightily. Reminiscent of his days as a house painter when he and his fellow workers would scrape paint down to the plaster and begin again, de Kooning's canvases of the 1980s were constantly reworked and reinterpreted. Beginning with a reference drawing, or photograph of another work, de Kooning would often use charcoal to transfer or retranslate it onto the canvas. Using a brush and palette knife he would react to the charcoal contours, filling in delineated spaces or over-painting them altogether. Scraping off anything he did not wish to preserve within the composition, the ghost-like evidence of de Kooning's pentimenti emerged, clearly visible through the white-painted ground. It is this subtly tinted white pigment that defines the 1980s paintings.
Simpler, but no less mysterious, the distinctive lines and calligraphic poetry of these canvases generated a sense of a cohesive and animated surface in much the same way as his earlier work, but in a subtler, gentler, and altogether more elegant and refined manner. The reemergence of secondary colors back into his 1987 canvases suggest a renewed plunge into the pure gestural pleasure of the painted surface. Yet, rather than slowing the drawing down, the renewed interest in color triggered a greater mobility of line as grand gestures continue off the edge of the painting with more frequency than before. If de Kooning's sumptuous flowing visceral paintings of the 1970s can be seen as "flesh without the bones" as one critic put it, then this new style was more "the bones without the flesh" (M. Prather, Willem de Kooning Paintings, exh. cat., National Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1994, p. 200).
Having reduced his painterly means to what he was always best at, the incisive and intuitive touch of his line, de Kooning set this against the open emptiness of an infinite white space. In the pure reductive forms of these works he not only developed a resolute assuredness but he also seemed to be unashamedly reveling in the fundamental simplicity of his art. "I am becoming freer," he explained, "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" (W. de Kooning, quoted in M. Prather (ed.),Willem de Kooning, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1995, p. 199).