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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' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
60¼ x 54 in. (153.3 x 137.2 cm.)
Painted circa 1975.
Provenance
Acquired from the artist

Lot Essay

The year 1975 is a pivotal one for de Kooning's late large-scale abstractions. After a successful foray into sculpture, the artist returned to painting to create an extraordinary body of work where the landscape became the central focus and the works are less overtly referential. The women who were present in his earlier paintings became increasingly assimilated into abstract and gestural brushwork of the later paintings. In effect, the women became the landscapes. What remains of any bodily reminders are the Rubensian flesh tones in certain passages and the curvilinear forms suggesting contours of the body.

Untitled embodies these characteristics in a bold fashion. The composition is decidedly abstract, where the brushwork seems to jostle for space, and areas simultaneously collide into and bond with each other. As de Kooning resolutely worked to subsume the figure in the swirling paint, the space surrounding the figure began to take precedence. Whatever space it may be--air, light, wind, water--they represent sublime effects in painting and that is what de Kooning masterfully captures in Untitled. "The drawn line, so important in the earlier work, is not as prominent a feature of the paintings of the 1970s. Line is subsumed in the increasing painterliness and abandon of the whole. The function of the drawn or cut edge, which defined the boundaries of forms and separated them from one another in earlier paintings, is carried by de Kooning's use of color, light, and pigment. Much of this change in direction can be attributed to de Kooning's sensitivity to his new environment" (D. Waldman, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1988, p. 126). The palette of Untitled is interweaved into a dazzling tapestry of vivid color.

What is especially notable in Untitled is the amorphous appearance of the canvas, eliding a specific orientation. Seen from the evidence of the drips from the red passages, de Kooning applied at least some of them while the painting was upside-down. The absence of a fixed orientation causes the painting to have the look of animate matter. In addition, critics have also described such works as "seascapes" or "wavescapes" because of their similar appearance to roiling waves and their rhythmic, churning motion. De Kooning often observed firsthand the ocean's properties of ceaseless movement and reflection. Untitled resembles a late Monet painting in which the cropping and multiple orientations of the watery landscape intensifies one's sense of being within the picture.

As David Sylvester suggested, de Kooning's unique handling of oil paint took on special powers in his late painting: "It came, with the artist in his mid-seventies, as the climax of the period in which the paintings-most of them landscapes of the body-with their massively congested, deeply luminous, color, their contrasts between flowing and broken forms, attain at their best a total painterliness in which marks and image coalesce completely and every inch of the canvas quivers with teeming energy. The paint is freely, loosely, messily handles, sometimes with fingers rather than a brush or knife. Blurred forms loom up, often in extreme close-up, simultaneously adumbrated and dissolved by the paint" (D. Sylvester, "Flesh was the Reason," Willem de Kooning: Paintings, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., 1994, p. 30). Because de Kooning often mixed water and oil as thinning and binding agents, the oil paint emulsified, which often had the appearance of a viscous solution and after certain areas of paint dried, they left puckering on the surface as it is visible in Untitled. Furthermore, one is able to visibly gauge the velocity of de Kooning's brushwork, especially in the blue strokes, which were probably applied by painter's brush because of their broad, even appearance. One cannot help but marvel at the decisions he makes at a split second, especially in the upper right corner, where the blue paint coils around the adjacent colors like a serpent. Finally, a pulsating effect occurs when de Kooning contrasts the impasto in Untitled with scraped down and blurred areas where the paint layer almost looks like skin because of its smoothness and translucency.

When viewing this painting, there exists a magnification of the fluid imagery. The energy of the brushstrokes seems barely contained by the edges of the canvas. The paint layers resemble a flow, where it is difficult to distinguish where one color begins and another one ends. No doubt these observations are based on de Kooning's technique of putting paper directly to the freshly wet paint and smearing and blurring the brushstrokes as he lifted it off. "Pigment is applied with house painter's brushes and then overlaid with sheets of paper, cardboard, or vellum, which are subsequently pulled off, leaving the surface free of brushstrokes but marked with the texture of the material that was placed upon it. This technique results in strong contrasts between velvety textures, rough, pitted surfaces, or blurred areas of paint and permits jumps from one area to another. The ultimate effect of these calculated procedures is freedom and improvisation, and nowhere is this spontaneity more evident than in his paintings of the mid-to-late 1970s" (D. Waldman, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1988, pp.127-128). DeKooning slowed down the drying process, which meant the paint was indefinitely malleable on the canvas. The result effect is a glossy sheen that a brush cannot create and contributes to the overall vibrancy of the surface.

De Kooning thrived on artistic risk and worked under tremendous internal pressure to create a painting he felt worked. He often destroyed works that were not up to his high standards. Moreover, it took a certain amount of courage or bravado to abandon the figure and return it to full abstraction, something which he had not done since 1950s, twenty years before. The sensation of looking at Untitled is not unlike watching a high-wire act. One is fascinated by de Kooning's fearless daring and virtuosity and is thusly rewarded by the outcome.

The artist's lack of self-consciousness and his sure hand have replaced the existential angst of the 1940s and 1950s. De Kooning in his usual colorful language described this productive period: "I made those paintings one after the other, no trouble at all. I couldn't miss. It's a nice feeling. It's strange. It's a man at a gambling table [who] feels that he can't lose. But when he walks away with the dough, he knows that he can't do that again. Because then it gets self-conscious. I wasn't self-conscious. I just did it." (Quoted in M. Prather, Willem de Kooning: Paintings, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., 1994, p. 197). His renewed confidence fueled what was to become one of the most productive and highly regarded periods of his long career.

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