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Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
Property of a Distinguished American Collection
Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)

Untitled XXVIII

Details
Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
Untitled XXVIII
oil on canvas
88 x 77 in. (223.5 x 195.6 cm.)
Painted in 1983.
Provenance
Estate of the artist
Private collection, Los Angeles
Gagosian Gallery, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Exhibited
London, Gagosian Gallery, Imageless Icons: Abstract Thoughts, February-March 2005, p. 31 (illustrated in color).
New York, L&M Arts, Willem de Kooning 1981-1986, September-December 2007, p. 41, no. 11 (illustrated in color).
Los Angeles, L&M Arts, Willem de Kooning: Figure & Light, November 2010-January 2011, p. 67, no. 22 (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

With its red and blue ribbons of paint weaving their way across the surface of the canvas, Untitled XXVIII is a large and impressive work that seems to bring together many of the most important motifs that have become central to de Koonings long and productive career. Executed in the sparse and severely reductive late style that de Kooning first evolved in the early 1980s, it is a picture that appears to epitomize the artist's belief that "there is a time in life when you just take a walk: and you walk into your own landscape" (W. de Kooning, "Sketchbook", quoted in Willem de Kooning Figure and Light, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art New York, 2010, p. 52).

Figures in landscapes had played a major part in de Kooning's paintings for many years, so the vague hint of a figure amongst the gestural abstract forms of this work is not altogether surprising. So corporeal is de Kooning's art that his so-called abstraction always hovered on the edge of figuration. Here, the easy, flowing forms of de Kooning's brushwork seem to float around the vague outline of a figure that calls to mind the fluid elegance and joyous grace of line to be seen in the late work of Henri Matisse--an artist with whom de Kooning clearly identified in his last years.

Painted in 1983, Untitled XXVIII is a work that belongs to the first period in which the full reductive force of de Kooning's late style first emerged. Shunning all except the primary colors (even yellow has been abandoned here) and concentrating solely on thin meandering brushstrokes to delineate the path of the painter's brush through the apparent void of white, the painting articulates a near-figurative sequence of abstract curves, twists, and turns which, careening between Futurist lines of force and the fluidity of pictorial ballet, both suggest and reflect the motion and form of the human body. Echoing the artist's own intuitive journey of discovery in the creation of the work as well as the athletic physical motion of his own body in its making, the painting expresses a rich, liquescent surface, rippling with apparent somatic sensibilities.

It was in 1980 that de Kooning made the last of the famous and dramatic shifts in style that had hitherto characterized so much of his artistic career. Entering what would prove to be its final phase, de Kooning began to paint in a more deliberate and reductive manner than ever before. His raw splashes of paint and the energetic semi-random sweeps of a heavily-laden brush were now replaced in these new works by a series of assured meandering ribbons of paint tracing their way over an infinite white ground. Simpler, but no less mysterious, these distinctive lines generated a sense of a cohesive and animated surface in much the same way as his earlier work, but in a subtler, gentler, and altogether more elegant and refined manner. If de Kooning's sumptuous flowing visceral painting of the 1970s can be seen as "flesh without the bones" as one critic put it, then this new style was more "the bones without the flesh" (M. Prather, Willem de Kooning Paintings, exh. cat., National Gallery Washington, D.C., 1994, p. 200).

Much of the former aggression and physical struggle of de Kooning's work is absent from the later works, which favor a simpler, more joyous, and "pure" form of painting. This feature of de Kooning's late work reflects not only the artist's maturity and familiarization with his working process but also the profound presence of Matisse in his mind at this time. According to his assistant Tom Ferrara, Matisse was a regular topic of de Kooning's conversation throughout the 1980s. It was the pure "uncomplicatedness" of Matisse's paintings, de Kooning said, that so appealed to him. "There is no ism there....[I'm] just painting a painting," he told Courtney Sale in 1982, and it was this aspect that de Kooning now found he wanted to achieve with his own work. To reduce his former emotional anxieties and physical struggle and to remove the often-tempestuous psychological overtones from his work, de Kooning let his working practice evolve into the purest form of itself. Previously always tense and even nervous about his art, de Kooning, who through the intervention of his wife Elaine, had now finally abandoned his addiction to alcohol that had debilitated him for much of the late 1970s and was now more at ease with his art and with his ability than perhaps ever before" "You get old, you get used to yourself. I used to be so nervous I got palpitations. Now I don't have that trouble. I see the canvas, and I begin.... But you have to keep on the very edge of something, all the time, or the picture dies" (W. de Kooning, quoted in op. cit., London, 1995, p. 199).

As films of de Kooning show, the artist worked exceedingly swiftly and fluidly on his later paintings of the 1980s, indeed his productivity increased immeasurably during this period. As always, de Kooning often used passages from drawings and earlier paintings as well as photographs of other works in various states of completion as the starting point. He also retained the practice of working on several paintings at the same time, keeping many favorite works around him to help inspire, he hoped, the creation of others. In addition, in the mid-1980s he actually began to use a technique he had long talked about using and had even, famously, persuaded Franz Kline to employ in the 1950s: the magnification and projection of his own images as prompts for painting. Many of the lines that define the form of his 1980s paintings were directly traced from projected lines of earlier works directly onto his canvas.

These processes allowed again for the increased distillation of his earlier painterly practices into a new, more refined form, but de Kooning still continued to scrape off and then build-up the surface of his paintings in the manner he had used in so many earlier works. Now, however, he was more reluctant to let these corrections show through the surface so clearly, and therefore, he now overpainted his amendments with thick white backgrounds. It is this seemingly infinite white space of the backgrounds of the 1980s paintings that ultimately defines them. Having reduced his painterly means to the incisive and intuitive touch of his line, he set this against the open emptiness of an immense white space. In this way, these works are startlingly reflective not only of de Kooning's new-found sobriety and the self-acceptance that derived from his self-imposed isolation on Long Island, but also of his decision to continue to work into old age in the manner that he had always practiced his art, using painting as the entire raison d'etre of his life. Against a white void, the very act of painting is here displayed as both the path of life itself and as a way of living. "Just because you're getting older," he said at this time, "doesn't mean you're doing it better. But you can't stop either, or you'll be lost. So you go ahead, even though you don't know where you're going, because you never know. You just know how to leave from where you've been" (W. de Kooning, quoted in Willem de Kooning, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, 1995, London, p. 202).

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