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

Untitled XI

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
Untitled XI
signed 'de Kooning' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
60¼ x 54 in. (153 x 137.2 cm.)
Painted in 1975-1976.
Xavier Fourcade, Inc., New York
Richard L. Feigen and Co., Inc., New York
Elaine Dannheiser Collection, New York
Their sale; Sotheby's, New York, 15 May 2002, lot 36
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Seattle Art Museum, de Kooning: New Work, Paintings and Sculpture, February-March 1976.
Los Angeles, James Corcoran Gallery, de Kooning, May-June 1976.
University of Houston, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Gallery, de Kooning: Recent Works, January-February 1977.
Amsterdam, Collection d'Art, de Kooning, October-December 1977.
Bridgeport, Museum of Art, Science and Industry, Fairfield Arts Festival: De Kooning, Artist of the Year, June 1978.
East Hampton, Guild Hall Museum, Willem de Kooning: Works from 1951-1981, May-July 1981, p. 32, no. 29 (illustrated in color).
New York, Artemis Greenberg Van Doren Gallery, New York, All American Part II, October 2002, no. 13.

Lot Essay

The year 1975 marked the beginning of a period of intense creativity for de Kooning as he embarked on a series of abstractions inspired by the sense of light and space he experienced in the countryside and coastline around his home in the Springs, on the eastern end of New York's Long Island. This period also marked a return to mainstream painting after an absence of several years, during which time he produced his iconic series of magnificent sculptures. The intensity with which he relished his return to work with oil paint seems to have taken even de Kooning by surprise, as he described the feeling of renewed confidence in painting: "I couldn't miss. It's strange. It's like a man at a gambling table [who] feels that he can't lose. But when he walks away with all the dough, he knows he can't do that again. Because then it gets self-conscious. I wasn't self-conscious. I just did it" (W. de Kooning, quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2004, pp. 560-561).

Working in his studio, de Kooning was moved by the luminous watery landscape that surrounded him. He made it a daily ritual to ride his bike to Louse Point and meditate upon the fluctuating surface of the ocean. As de Kooning explained, "I wanted to get in touch with nature. Not painting scenes from nature, but to get a feeling of that light that was very appealing to me, here particularly. I was always very much interested in water" (W. de Kooning quoted in H. Rosenberg, "Interview with Willem de Kooning," Art News, no. 71, September 1972). The undulating rhythms of brushwork recall the oceanic flux that entranced de Kooning: "There is something about being in touch with the sea that makes me feel good, it is the source where most of my painting comes from" (W. de Kooning, quoted in Willem de Kooning: Paintings, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., p. 198).

As a result, paintings such as Untitled XI are among some of the most exuberant and expressive of de Kooning's career. Their ribbons of bright color and bursts of animated brushwork feel as though the artist is immersed again in the painterly process, rediscovering the experiences and emotions that he felt the first time he began putting paint on canvas. Untitled XI's combination of cool whites, bright blues, and warm pinks and reds evokes the countryside of de Kooning's cherished Hamptons. Surrounded by the blue sky, green fields, and crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean, de Kooning transforms these physical features into painterly form. In addition, the dense, allover composition allows the artist to dispense with traditional perspective, allowing his gestures to sit on top of the picture plane like the reflections on the surface of the water that de Kooning so admired. The critic Dore Ashton likened de Kooning's work from 1975 to going on an excursion: "De Kooning masterfully directs the viewer on a journey through many climates," she wrote in a magazine article the following year (D. Ashton, quoted in J. Elderfield (ed.), de Kooning: A Retrospective, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011, p. 419), and indeed, Untitled XI does evoke a map, not of geographical features per se, but rather of the physical response that a captivating landscape evokes.

De Kooning's painterly abstractions from this period often began life as small drawings that the artist made on paper or vellum during his long walks or bike rides. On returning to the studio he would then transfer these to a larger support, either using the original or a photograph of the original drawing as a guide, sketching it freehand with charcoal. De Kooning often noted colors on his original drawings and then transferred these to his final canvas with his characteristic flourish and swiftly moving hand. Untitled XI shows this masterful handling of paint, with warm and cools tones draped in contiguous swathes across the surface of the work. In order to attain the very loose, liquid consistency necessary for this process to work, de Kooning used a unique blend of water, kerosene, benzine or safflower oil with his pigments to both bind and thin his oil paint. This complex process lent his paint its extraordinary ability to be sloshed, splashed, and dripped as well as smeared, pulled and almost molded onto the surface, often resulting in a rippling effect when the paint dried. This rich textural and liquescent quality resonates throughout this work as the colors mix and merge to produce a pearlescent effect that illuminates the surface of the work with iridescent beauty.

De Kooning's paintings from this period are some of the most dramatic abstractions of his career. Gone are the often dark and grotesque renditions of the female figure, replaced by painterly renditions of nature inspired by the landscape of his cherished Hamptons. His rediscovery of his joy in the tactility of paint and the physical act of painting during this period resulted in striking and compositionally complex works, several of which are contained within major museum collections, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago. These paintings, along with Untitled XI, allude to de Kooning's reassertion of the power of painting and his unrelenting desire to exploit these qualities to their full potential, as the curator David Sylvester identified: "the paintings with their massively congested, luminous color, their contrasts between flowing and broken forms, attain at their best a painterliness in which marks and image coalesce completely and every inch of the canvas quivers with teeming energy" (D. Sylvester, Op. Cit., p, 430).

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