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

Untitled

Details
Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
Untitled
signed 'de Kooning' (lower left)
oil on two sheets of paper laid down on canvas
54¾ x 60¼ in. (139.1 x 153 cm.)
Painted in 1969-72.
Provenance
Acquired from the artist
Exhibited
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art; New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art and London, Tate Gallery, Willem de Kooning: Paintings, May 1994-May 1995, p. 190, no. 59 (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

Much has been said about the impact of de Kooning's move to the Springs in East Hampton on his works of the 1960s and 1970s. Once settled there, the artist was profoundly affected by the natural landscape. He embarked on the creation of works that evoked the pastoral, dwelling on the harmonious, beneficent relationship between man and nature. This traditional subject resonated with the artist, who was first exposed to the classic theme in his early academic training in Rotterdam. In order to paint what he saw and felt in East Hampton, his signature brushwork adjusted to a slower speed and the shape of the stroke became broader and more voluptuous. His paintings no longer appeared severely angular and full of whiplash effects, but rather, they became more fluid and sumptuous in color and handling of the paint. In the past de Kooning bent the subject matter towards his will; this time, another personality of the artist had emerged, that of someone who allowed the natural environment to overwhelm his senses. The water, air and light of eastern Long Island rejuvenated de Kooning and allowed him to have a revitalized late period that rivals that of Picasso's and Matisse's.

Untitled is a fascinating example of de Kooning's paintings where this unity of vision is at its most compelling. De Kooning collapsed all kind of binaries in his art--background vs. foreground, perspective vs. flattening, exterior space vs. interior space, and this time, figure vs. landscape. In previous works, de Kooning's method of dismantling binary structures was based on Cubist dissection and frenetic energy, but now, the kind of melding occurs where matter has been transformed and the body and the landscape share the same internal properties.

In a work such as Untitled, it is quite difficult to determine the boundaries between the figure and landscape. The entire composition is composed of fluid space churning and twisting, from which discernible parts of the body emerge. Indeterminate nature of the shapes confirms de Kooning's preference for ambiguity. Marla Prather describes this particular work, "In Untitled of circa 1969-1972 what looks like an ear or a nose could be a foot or a hand. De Kooning preferred to arrive at content by association, and he often spoke of discovering representational imagery in his painting when none was there by design." (M. Prather, Willem de Kooning: Paintings, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., 1994, p. 179.)

The ambiguous placement of the figure in space is made possible by distinctive paint application by de Kooning. He had emulsified his oil paint with water and safflower oil to make it more viscous. In Untitled, he took advantage of the paint's exaggerated slickness and rendered forms that appeared at once spontaneous and in motion, which was abetted by the smoothness of the top paper support. The brushwork looks almost aqueous, as if one is viewing an underwater scene, with the distortions of the water current and refractions of light continually shifting perspectives. While working de Kooning habitually kept the paint surface as wet as possible so that he was able to revise continuously. He covered the canvas with paper to further delay drying. Sometimes he would shift the paper before removing so that the surface would blur and blend in the paint layers. This softening of the brushwork's linear quality contributes to the painting's liquefied space.

The naturalistic color palette of Untitled is especially notable. De Kooning's move to the Springs affected the choices of his palette by seemingly taking cues from nature: "When I came here I made the color of sand--a big pot of paint that was the color of sand. As if I picked up sand and mixed it. And the grey-green grass, the beach grass, and the ocean was all kind of steely grey most of the time. When the light hits the ocean there is a kind of a grey light on the water. Indescribable tones, almost. I started working with them and insisted that they would give me the kind of light I wanted. One was lighting up the grass. That became that kind of green. One was lighting up the water. That became that grey." (De Kooning, reprinted in H. Rosenberg, de Kooning, New York, 1973, p. 50.) While Untitled retains the colors that are characteristic of de Kooning paintings--vivid reds, blues, greens--more tonal variations are apparent. The warm tones of ochre, yellow, and cream are either layered over each other or are laid side by side as a matter of increasing the intensity or saturation of the hues. These warm tones could either allude to sand or flesh.

It has been documented that Untitled served as a transfer for other paintings. "In other paintings from this period figurative references are radically camouflaged by the painterly medium. There is internal evidence that two Untitled paintings either began as transfers or served as the matrix for other transfers. The figure has been pulled apart in these compositions and its parts freely distributed around the painted field." (M. Prather, Ibid.) What is also striking about Untitled is how it foreshadows the paintings of the 1980s. The work is full of leaf-shaped forms, as the line extends outward and then curves back in to complete the shape, and also in the bulbous contours that seem to cling onto the color planes. These two particular forms are often repeated in the abstract works of the 1980s.

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