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Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
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Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)


Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
signed 'de Kooning' (lower right)
oil, enamel and charcoal on paper mounted on board
22½ x 27½ in. (57.2 x 69.9 cm.)
Painted in 1955.
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
E.A. Navaretta, New York
Allan Stone Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
T. Hess, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1959, no. 146 (illustrated).
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, Willem de Kooning: Recent Paintings, April 1956, no. 12.
Houston, University of Saint Thomas, Six Paintings: Mondrian, Guston, Kline, de Kooning, Pollock and Rothko, February-April 1967, no. 39.
Detroit, JL Hudson Gallery, de Kooning: Three Decades of Painting, March-April 1968.
New York, Allan Stone Gallery, Willem de Kooning: Liquefying Cubism, October 1994-January 1995, p. 41 (illustrated in color).
New York, The Whitney Museum of American Art, NYNY: City of Ambition, July-October 1996, p. 120 (illustrated in color).
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Lot Essay

Sagamore (1955) is among a small group of celebrated abstract paintings that Willem de Kooning executed in the mid-1950s. Classified as the Abstract Urban Landscapes, these works mark a turning point from the controversial Woman paintings towards a sustained exploration of the abstract landscape from 1955-63. Synthesizing site with the semi-autonomous process of painting, these works mark a highpoint in Abstract Expressionism; packed with raw, physical immediacy, they exemplify Harold Rosenberg's concept of "Action Painting."

De Kooning used the figure and the landscape as points of departure into abstraction and vacillated between the two modes throughout his career. In the fall of 1954, he began to subsume his Woman into her surroundings, coaxing the so-called "no-environment" of unspecified pictorial space around her, and rendering it the primary content of the works that followed. Exploring the collision of splintered, fast-paced, muscular brushstrokes and the abundance of spatially congested planes in a gritty mixture of pigment and charcoal, these brash paintings evoked the cacophony and dissonance of the urban experience. Acutely sensitive to his locale, de Kooning brought the environs of his Tenth Street studio to life in works such as Police Gazette (1954-55), Gotham News (1955-56), Saturday Night (1955-56), The Time of Fire (1956) and Backyard on Tenth Street (1956).

Famously stating "Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented," de Kooning believed that the woman invaded all of his pictures to some extent: she was the environment; she was the fleshy brushstroke. Sagamore is no exception; while ostensibly an urban abstraction, it is redolent of Two Women in the Country (1954). Indeed, the latter evinces an initial step in the disintegration of the women into autonomous brushwork, a gradual melt-down of foreground and background that is furthered in Sagamore. The pair of flesh-colored rhomboids in the upper center of the present work, coupled with the black vertical delineations that outline the shapes and extend down the length of the picture, carry vestiges of the figural renditions in Two Women in the Country. Even the storm of color echoes in the later work, particularly in the infusion of canary yellow and verdant green against the cherubic pink and sooty black.
Despite the figural specters that haunt Sagamore, it carries in its genealogy de Kooning's earlier breakthrough into abstraction with the famed black and white paintings of the late 1940s and the richly colored abstractions such as Asheville (1949-50). With their dense, compressed forms--alternatively jagged, fractured, fluid and biomorphic--these works seemed to hover in a painterly netherworld halfway between abstraction and figuration, expressing what de Kooning described as a "glimpse" of something he had felt, witnessed or seen.
de Kooning loved to walk the streets of Manhattan and these early abstractions reflect the nature of such dislocated wanderings. Carrying the feelings of chaos, violence and rawness, these works invoke the essence of a modern metropolis not unlike that in the Abstract Urban Landscapes, although the latter bears an altogether different vocabulary of mark-making. Less constrained by the rigid Cubist grid that anchored the earlier abstractions, the Abstract Urban Landscapes incorporate a greater fluidity and dynamism with their broader slashing gestures, heightened spatial ambiguities and bold chromatic juxtapositions.

In Sagamore, wide swaths of brilliant color abut and cut through thick strata of pigment. De Kooning used a process of layering that involved brushing fresh paint through wet areas, thereby pulling up adjacent colors such that they read through several layers and occasionally resulted in impasto surfaces. To further such textured effects, he pressed newspaper against paint, transferring newsprint onto the surface and scratched charcoal into its surface, replicating the grit and grime of the city. Suggesting architectural skeletons while still bearing figural reminiscences, sooty delineations overlay the jeweled juxtapositions of canary yellow, emerald green, mottled turquoise and flesh pink. A close friend of Franz Kline with whom he vacationed in Bridgehampton shortly before launching into his Abstract Urban Landscapes, de Kooning revealed the influence of his colleague through the powerful brushstrokes, bold calligraphy and heightened use of black in Sagamore.

Sagamore was probably inspired by a diner on Third Avenue and Eighth Street, a beatnik haunt close enough to de Kooning's studio that it is likely that he frequented it. From its vantage, de Kooning could have distilled the competing impulses of the city, liquefying the concrete-and-asphalt jungle of Manhattan into a passionate discourse of form and color. De Kooning loved to ride in cars and there is the distinct sense of the city being distilled by the speed of an automobile in this work. Despite being unable to drive, the artist made frequent trips at this time and one senses the city and its outskirts skidding into the chromatic hues of the present work. Speaking to Rosenberg about "the metamorphosis of passing things" and to David Sylvester about "the feeling of going into the city or coming from it" de Kooning filtered his Abstract Urban Landscapes through the age of speed in motion and communications.

Indeed, Sagamore accelerates American Painting into its Post-War pinnacle, brilliantly liquefying the grid of the city into a post-Cubist triumph of proud painterly gesture.

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