Willem de Kooning is the preeminent 20th century American artist whose career paralleled the ascendancy of Post-War American art. De Kooning created powerful, gestural works that, coming from one of Abstract Expressionism's reigning figures, epitomized that movement's ethos. Critic Harold Rosenberg hailed him an "action painter", because Rosenberg saw that, for de Kooning, the work's meaning materialized in the pitched battle between near-explosive tensions and unifying passages of calm. Throughout his career, de Kooning sought to capture the indeterminate, fluid state between figuration and abstraction. He radically departed from the lush pastorals of the 1970s in his elegantly spare last great cycle of paintings in the 1980s. Yet, these voluptuous, beautiful canvases remain consistent with works made in the Springs of Long Island. During 1987, de Kooning produced only 26 major paintings, relatively a small number considering his prolific output.
Untitled is a classic example of de Kooning's late paintings, the pure white background set against areas of red, yellow, and blue. We can see no discernible imagery, except for these languid, sinuous lines. The serpentine curves recall his friend Arshile Gorky's drawing, which in turn emulate natural, organic forms. In April 1981, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum mounted a retrospective exhibition of Gorky's work and de Kooning traveled into New York to see the show. The two artists had met during the 1930s and became close friends, sharing a mutual enthusiasm for European masters and modern art. Gorky still wrapped his paintings in Surrealism's mantel, even though they possessed strong abstract qualities. De Kooning eschewed orthodoxy, which explains his lack of allegiance to any organized group such as the American Abstract Artists or the Surrealist exiles in Post-War New York. Socially, he became part of the Club, where fellow Abstract Expressionists congregated in bars and lofts to discuss the merits of art. De Kooning relished the camaraderie among those who intensely argued and fought for their artistic principles. While others artists asserted a particular stance with their style, de Kooning avoided any trenchant point of view when it came to his work. In fact, de Kooning seems most at ease and masterful when not steering the course of a particular work's outcome. He once described himself as a "slipping glimpser."
Untitled's skin-like surface merges with the flowing lines of pure color. In the work, de Kooning created volume using the yellow billowing areas that he edged with contrasting bold red and blue brushstrokes. He had long admired Henri Matisse - another artist with a long career with marked different "styles" - for both his early painting, such as La Danse, and the late cutouts. Both de Kooning's and Matisse's work resonate with bodily form: compare the present work with Matisse's cutouts of the female body, such as the Blue Nude. In de Kooning's painting, we can see the body reference in the contoured lines that dart inside and out, fold in, stretch out, collapse into each other, and flow out, tracing the curves of a woman's body. Gone are the watery Rubenesque nudes of the 1970s, but their outlines remain, evidence of corporeal presence. De Kooning never abandoned the figure for abstraction or vice versa, because he believed maintaining a position would be too limiting. Throughout his career, he defied public expectations by shifting between abstraction and figuration each time with renewed vigor and a child-like lack of cynicism. Each polarity becomes defined by its relationship to the other. In the 1970s, de Kooning fully merged these extremes and submerged them in the liquid depths of his abstractions with embedded images of a sailboat, a shoe, or a pair of lips floating by. By the 1980s, the paintings become airborne; the ethereal brushstrokes seem to unfurl and undulate at the slightest breeze. In his final series, de Kooning recalls his early enamel works from the 1940s where drawing is the essential component. He purged the present work of all superfluous detail and pure drawing remains. The painting owes its all-over effect, with a lack of central focus, to de Kooning's lifelong habit of orienting a painting in different directions so that the artist could perceive the work anew.
When one regards the photographs of de Kooning's East Hampton studio that include the present work, it is striking to see how, as a practice, his paintings physically surrounded him. He would glimpse the nearby works, which would then inform the way he approached the canvas on the easel. The energy of one painting flows into another. The expressive lines appear spontaneous and unrehearsed and one sees an astonishing array of original configurations when the paintings are shown together. While limiting himself to a certain proportion of the canvas, the austere palette of primary colors, and flowing brushwork, de Kooning actually opened a new world of possibilities within these strict parameters.
Drawing toward the end of his long life and career, de Kooning came to personify Abstract Expressionism's august presence for new generations of artists. He was one of the few remaining figures who experienced the full arc of the movement, from its impoverished beginnings of the 1930s and 40s, the coalescing of a formal development in the 1950s and the canonization it received during the following decades. In de Kooning's late pictures, we see new discoveries, freedom and lightness, shared by Matisse's cutouts. Unlike the other late funereal pictures of modern masters such as Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, de Kooning's late works focus on life's impulse to create and flourish. We find no finality in de Kooning's work, just open possibility.