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Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
Property from the Collection of Lee V. Eastman
Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)


Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
signed and dated 'de Kooning 57' (lower left)
oil and charcoal on two sheets of card mounted on panel
22 x 14¼ in. (55.9 x 37.5 cm.)
Painted in 1957.
Acquired from the artist

Lot Essay

This Untitled work by de Kooning from 1957 belongs to a celebrated body of paintings where the artist was at his most abstract. This austere and highly compact picture emanates a severe elegance. By tightly focusing his picture to only broad brushstrokes painted in sharp vectors or dashed across the surface in a vehement fashion, de Kooning made oil paint the subject matter. The performative aspect of Abstract Expressionism and its insistence on the participation of the spectator make for a thrilling experience when viewing a painting such as Untitled. It has been simplified into pure abstraction, but it does not feel at all like a reduction in its execution. With its rapid brushstrokes that dazzle the eye and a highly personalized palette of burnt oranges, brilliant blues, marigold yellows, warm reds, sensual pinks along with black and white, abstraction never looked so alluring. De Kooning's sense of touch and immediacy that informed his tremendously personal gesture are fully present in the picture.

1957 can be regarded as one of de Kooning's breakthrough years, as he broke new ground in abstraction. Only a few years before he seemed to be locked into perpetuating the Woman series indefinitely. Untitled contains a dynamism that seems to be almost bursting at the seams. Two sources may be considered for these paintings. As de Kooning was spending more time in eastern Long Island, and since he could not drive, he was driven along the various parkways, which delighted him. Inside the speeding car, de Kooning absorbed the scene outside, which passed by in a rapid blur. De Kooning once said that these paintings were like "emotions, landscapes and highways and sensations of that, outside the city--with the feeling of going into the city or coming from it." Another source was the paintings by his close friend, Franz Kline. Like de Kooning, Kline was a prominent figure in the Tenth Street painting scene and they had been friends since the early 1940s. These late 50s works are similar to Kline's architectonic slabs and slashes. And it is interesting to note Kline's abstractions at the same time shifted to color, away from their usual black and white, but they did not allude to landscape as did de Kooning's abstractions.

Untitled consists of two pieces of painted collage; the act of collage held generative powers for the artist. Thomas Hess explains de Kooning's habit of tearing drawings as something vitally integral to the artist's working method. "Fundamentally, tearing drawings was a means of pictorial orientation. It is a practice in which art refers most of all to art--the shapes becoming the subject of another shape and then of still another shape in an increasingly complicated fugue of interlocking elements. But beneath this intense concentration on the pictorial, one senses the breath and pulse of the artist's passion" (T. Hess, De Kooning Drawings, Greenwich, 1972, p. 16). On his studio walls, de Kooning had tacked up small oil on paper pieces as a repository of images to use as collage elements for his paintings or to jumpstart a new picture. Around this time, de Kooning created small 8 x 7 inch paintings using collage elements as the means of inventing new compositions. With collage's rich potential, de Kooning achieved numerous pictorial possibilities. It also gave him a sense of freedom because with the open-ended abstract shapes, collage did not have to have a specific spatial orientation and did not involve narrative like surrealist collages. His process is very similar to cubist collages in their sharp planes of color either built up or dismantled, but de Kooning's personalized painted gesture seems to make it into a more subjective endeavor.

In Untitled, de Kooning joined the two separate collage elements so that where the edges unite forms a central vertical line. The colors are primary colors with black and white paint, and the lines and triangular shapes counterbalance each other. There is a slight sense of depth where the left side of the painting, which includes an expanse of white, pulls forward while the cool blue of the right side recedes. There is a great deal of active brushstrokes that swoop down, jolt up, and slide diagonally--a number of vigorous motions by the artist's hand. The paint is layered, sometimes scraped down, but always is worked with a show of vitality and controlled force. This work resembles the structure of major paintings from the same period such as Suburb in Havana, 1958 and Montauk Highway, 1958. All contain broad strokes of color that are placed diagonally against a field of color, and judging from the titles, hint of a certain place.

"De Kooning's art aspires to the look of life, the feel of the commonplace. When the constrictions of style have been broken, art is made from house paints, with ordinary hardware store brushes. The surface of the image often has a torn, offhand look, like rubble. And the image itself relates to an iconography of the usual. Opposed to this, however, is the strength of a sophisticated, intellectual force in the work. The esthetic distance is very real--de Kooning's are not pictures that invite audience participation or ingratiate themselves with a new look or frisson" (T. Hess, De Kooning Drawings, Greenwich, 1972, p. 57). De Kooning's methodology of complex layerings and cancellations attests to the keen intelligence and protean force of his image-making abilities. De Kooning's brilliant use of collage as the means of generating new images based on his own existing painting not only constructed rich lineage of images in his oeuvre but also devised a new kind of Post-War abstraction.


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