A pinnacle from the late flowering of his career, Untitled I is a monumental testament to Willem de Kooning's prowess during his twilight years. This rippling, luminous canvas is both a work of sublime sensuality and a triumphant manifestation of de Kooning's will to overcome a period of personal and creative crisis. Untitled I was painted in a time of newfound stability for the artist, which heralded the dawning of a significant new phase in his oeuvre. During the 1970's, de Kooning suffered bouts of severe alcoholism and depression. He found himself especially struggling in 1978, in the wake of the sudden deaths of two dear friends and critical supporters, Harold Rosenberg and Thomas Hess. At 74 years of age, de Kooning may have felt that the world he knew was ending and it might have, had he not been rescued from his extremes of anxiety and the drinking that accompanied them by the intervention of Elaine de Kooning and other family and friends who helped dry him out and bring order to his life and work again. The scant quantity of de Kooning's production at this time indicates that the cure was neither easy nor immediate. De Kooning was notorious for allowing few works' survival under the harsh scrutiny of his standards and of the paintings that were made during this period only a small number were kept. In 1979, he completed no more than a dozen paintings to his satisfaction, far fewer than was customary; and in 1980 the number was even less. Indeed, although de Kooning's dealer Xavier Foucade attributed ten canvases to 1980, his studio assistant Tom Ferrara (who began working for him in October 1980) believes Untitled I to be one of three paintings credited to this year that were actually painted in 1979.
Untitled I displays the familiar raw splashes of paint and energetic sweeps of a heavily-laden brush, but it also hints at the meandering ribbons, infinite white backgrounds and smoother surfaces that would become the signature of de Kooning's 1980's output. The entire composition is composed of fluid space churning and twisting with a variety of planes of paint that fold in and out of each other, meshing broad strokes of emerald green, deep blue, and orange, amongst others, into a luminous field of white. These bands of color generate an all-over, animated surface in much the same way as de Kooning's earlier work, but in a subtler, gentler, and altogether more elegant and refined manner. Like great paintings from the 1970's reflecting the continually changing pattern of light on water such as North Atlantic Light and Whose Name was Writ in Water, in Untitled I de Kooning has created a mesmeric and flickering surface of sumptuous texture and shifting color. The overall composition appears to depend on an informal grid, but not one that restricts the flow of the artist's brush and scraper. These tools have sent pigment slipping across and down the canvas in an unstable game of snakes and ladders that has no beginning and no end. The viewer's eye is drawn up long streaks of green and down passages of white as it follows the syncopated rhythm and speed of de Kooning's deft handiwork. The small purple vortex at center left seems to mark a shift in pace for the upper half of the canvas, as long marks become short and space appears to compress. Rhythm, pace, syncopation: such musical analogies were not lost on de Kooning. "Miles Davis bends the notes," he once observed. "He doesn't play them, he bends them. I bend the paint" (W. de Kooning, quoted in Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, De Kooning : An American Master, New York 2005, p. 562). In its hue and tempo, the painterly content of Untitled I strives for visual equilibrium, but there is an underlying febrility, as if the carefully suspended balance is on the verge of collapse.
As de Kooning entered his later years, he found himself becoming more beguiled by the example of artists whose late work had marked a new departure, often referring to Matisse, "Old man Monet" or "Old man Cézanne". Cézanne's tightly interworked linking of surface and form, gesture and line was a particularly deep influence--a way of working de Kooning liked to describe as "fitting-in". The compositional technique de Kooning employed to unite his almost instinctive marks was, he said, "not like Cubism" but more "like Cézannism". Nothing is ever defined. Boundaries, intersections and outlines appear, disappear and intermingle at apparent random yet all are inextricably linked to the innate logic of the painting as a complete, cohesive entity. Many of the curious effects seen in Untitled I result from de Kooning's practiced use of the scraper to add nuance to the edge of a colored form as well as bring up the residue of other layers of paint. The result is a surprising mix, not only of colors, but also of opacity and transparency. By twisting the scraper as he dragged it, and by varying the pressure, de Kooning achieved a spatial ambiguity along edges that becomes a source of tension analogous to that between horizontal and vertical forces. To complicate things further, he would regularly rotate his canvas as he worked in order to encourage an amorphous composition that eludes a specific orientation. Seen from the evidence of various drips, de Kooning applied at least some of his pigment while Untitled I was upside-down.
The absence of a fixed orientation causes the painting to have the look of animate matter, or the shifting perspectives of restless water and refracted light. Much has been said about the impact of de Kooning's move to the Springs in East Hampton where he was profoundly affected by the natural landscape, particularly the beaches around Louse Point where he spent hours observing the ceaseless movement and reflection of the roiling, churning sea. The unprecedented liquidity and flow of paint in paintings such as Untitled I attest to de Kooning's reveries by bodies of water, and can be compared a the late painting of Claude Monet where the closely cropped focus on a rippling body of water intensifies one's sense of being within the picture. The aqueous hues of Untitled I miraculously translate the shimmering light, rippling water and bracing air of East Hampton into the substance of paint. There is transfiguration at work here, and a stirring of the moods, desires, memories and sensations of a lifelong "water-gazer"; and of de Kooning's unique view of reality as being a similar flux of form only truly perceivable through what he once famously described as the "slipping glimpse".