"There's no way of looking at a work of art by itself. It's not self-evident-it needs a history, it needs a lot of talking about; it's part of a whole man's life."
- Willem de Kooning
Reflecting on a past replete with women and landscapes, the translucence and light that radiates from Untitled XVII summons a dream or reverie, from which its creator, Willem de Kooning, seems to have emerged in order to create his last great cycle of paintings. A masterwork from de Kooning's final decade of production, Untitled XVII emerges as the signature example of the artist's 1984 works. Characterized by Robert Storr as one of the greatest of de Kooning's late works, the critic and curator emphasizes, "Particularly in the works from 1984, the results are paintings of an openness and freedom not seen before, paintings that are extraordinarily lyrical, immediately sensual, and exhilarating; of all of the paintings of the 1980's, they are the most diaphanous and drawing-like" (R. Storr, quoted in Willem de Kooning, The Late Paintings, The 1980s, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1995, p. 28). Seeking throughout his life to capture the indeterminate, fluid state between figuration and abstraction, the late canvases poetically evoke the deconstructed female figure with more grace and elegance than otherwise observed throughout the artist's extensive oeuvre.
Oscillating between delicacy and boldness, Untitled XVII is formed of countless shapes of linear inventions. A gentle cascade of whip-lashed red and blue strokes rhythmically emerges from the warm undulating hues of sunny yellows and soft peaches. Floating contours of myriad variety push and pull the composition into a state of ever-moving tension. Biomorphic forms, giving the allusion of sumptuous nudes, evolve out of the rolling bends of primary colored strokes, and planes of white infused with soft billowing color. And yet, the allusions and external imagery are only secondary to the commanding presence of the glowing canvas with flowing lines of paint, in its highly abstract composition.
Recalling his early enamel works of the 1940s, de Kooning's final series of paintings reverts to drawing as the essential compositional component. As with his earlier works, he had deliberately reduced his palette and purged his canvas of excessive detail. Yet, the luminosity and utter effortlessness of Untitled XVII'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 anew, 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 the image onto the canvas. Using a brush and palette knife he would react to the charcoal contours, filling in delineated spaces or painting over 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 generate 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. In the final effort in modern art's attempt to dissolve the classical nudes of Ingres and Rubens--by means of Picasso and Léger's Cubist figures, Matisse's simplified dancers and bold cut-outs, and finally de Kooning's own savage women--de Kooning looks to his masterworks from the late 1940s and '50s to suspend the nude into pure abstraction. Using drawing as the central component, de Kooning constructs his all-over canvases with subtle hints of the female form only to be extracted by the viewers' eye and simultaneously melted back into abstraction. Yet, unlike their predecessors, Attic and Excavation, which conceal puzzled forces of violent forms pulled from Picasso's Guernica or Pieter Brueghel's Triumph of Death, the late canvases reintroduce the aesthetic structure of the Venus or odalisque's elegant curves.
In fact, in the case of de Kooning's late paintings one might do well in recalling Clement Greenberg's words from the 1950s, speaking of the artist's wish "to re-charge advanced painting, which has largely abandoned the illusion of depth and volume, with something of the old power of the sculptural contourto make it accommodate bulging, twisting planes like those seen in Tintoretto and Rubens yet without sacrificing anything of abstract painting's decorative and physical force" (C. Greenberg quoted in, J. Elderfield, de Kooning: A Retrospective, exh. cat, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2010, p. 41). Yet, in de Kooning's late canvases he shows us that space has no need to accommodate bulging, twisting places because it itself bulges and twists--as if it were contour lines in maps of an imaginary volumetric terrain that is continuously warping and deforming, collapsing and inflating. At once ferociously bold and extraordinarily subtle compositions, they look back ultimately to the bulging and twisting compositions of the High Renaissance and the Baroque. And too, as poetically described by Klaus Kertess, the late canvases draw on the long sinuous lines of Jean-August-Dominique Ingres, stating, "In slow motion, in subtly varying widths, all quite thin, the lush, generously curving lines languorously drift in and out of embraces to create a serene and sensuous dream of faraway female flesh, perhaps that of the many nudes crowding Ingres' Turkish Bath" (K. Kertess quoted in, ibid., p. 473).
If de Kooning's opulent visceral paintings of the 1960s can be seen as the "flesh without the bones" as one critic put it, then this new style emerged as "the bones without the flesh" (M. Prather, Willem de Kooning Paintings, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 1994, p. 200). Gone are the watery Rubenesque nudes of the 1970s, but the evidence of their corporeal presence remains--their flesh evolved into pigment stretched to the limits of textural and chromatic self-definition. Creating a dichotomy between the artist's figures and abstracts David Sylvester concludes that "the so-called figures are figures and the so-called abstractions are jumbled fragments of figures" (D. Sylvester quoted in, J. Elderfield, op cit., p. 25). Thus, it can be said that de Kooning's most impressive achievement was his ability to continually develop, refine and advance his work-over a period of 60 years--yet maintain an unmistakable touch that is still instantly recognizable as his own. Never content to settle into one stultifying style, de Kooning continued to experiment and take risks with his art.
Nearing the end of de Kooning's output, Untitled XVII takes on a new freedom and lightness, evocative of Henri Matisse, an artist with whom de Kooning clearly identified with in his last years. Having long admired Matisse--another artist with an extensive career of markedly different 'styles'--for both his early paintings and late paper cutouts, de Kooning's late paintings reflect his predecessors undulating lines and bold, sharply defined forms, as illustrated in Matisse's striking cutout La Chevelure (The Flowing Hair) from 1952. "Lately I've been thinking that it would be nice to be influenced by Matisse," de Kooning said in 1980. "I mean he's so lighthearted. I have a book about how he was old and he cut out colored patterns and he made it so joyous. I would like to do that, too--not like him, but joyous, more or less" (W. de Kooning, quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swann, de Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2004, p. 589). By the 1980s de Kooning had outlived many of his peers in the Abstract Expressionist movement and some of his most trusted supporters, but his work shows none of the darkness that can inflect the work of mature artists. It instead focuses on life's impulse to create and flourish. We therefore find no finality in Untitled XVII, just open-ended possibility and the exultant pleasure of painting.