Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
Property From An Important California Collection
Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)


Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
oil on canvas
80 x 70 in. (203.2 x 177.8 cm.)
Painted in 1987.
The Willem de Kooning Estate, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2002
R. Smith, "Willem de Kooning: 1987 Paintings," New York Times, 7 December 2001, p. E32 (illustrated).
"Art Guide," New York Times, 14 December 2001, p. E41 (illustrated).
New York, Matthew Marks Gallery, Willem de Kooning: 1987 Paintings, November-December 2001, pp. 36 and 43, pl. 6 (illustrated in color).

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Koji Inoue
Koji Inoue

Lot Essay

Weaving, cutting, and bridging across sunny yellow and subtly tinted white planes, the graphic, red ribbons of Willem de Kooning's Untitled create a tangle of forms that suggest the movement of the human body and the vitality of nature. Much like the late work of Pablo Picasso or Henri Matisse, de Kooning's paintings of the 1980s are a powerful testament to the creative capacities of the mature artist. As with his predecessors, de Kooning's final canvases possess the same sustained energy and technical finesse of his earlier achievements. And yet, propelling the zeitgeist of American art forward since the 1950s, de Kooning's late works embody the spirit of their generation as much as his Women did in the 1950s. Distilled into pure line and color, Untitled simultaneously recalls the extensive career of its famed creator, while evoking the era in which it was conceived.

Investigating a restricted palette of primary hues earlier in the decade, de Kooning was soon encouraged to expand the palette of his late works. As a result in 1987 his final cycle shifted in two opposing directions. While reintroducing the use of secondary colors in the majority of the paintings he created in the late 1980s, de Kooning, in reaction against these more colorful compositions, simultaneously embarked on a series of canvases that employed a narrowed palette dominated by reds and yellows. Exemplified in the present lot, these canvases introduced red as the sole drawing component, given volume by the billowing yellow in-filled stretches that in turn help to produce an overall sunny illumination. Constructed of ribbons that are neither lines nor shapes, the red contours morph into orange as they cross into expanses of yellow. While additional scarlet curves--those that abut the planes of yellow, or run free in space--diminish in energy, muting into pink or mauve. Where the axis of yellow through red dominates the picture plane, the scant supporting range of blue lines staccatoed around the perimeter of the canvas is ever present.

Unlike the compositions of the early 1980s, de Kooning's figural associations became more illusive as the decade progressed veering toward the more subtle hints of the abstracted landscape. "I was always fascinated with the underbrush the entanglement of it," de Kooning explained when asked why he moved to Springs, Long Island. (W. de Kooning, quoted in J. Elderfield, Willem de Kooning: A Retrospective, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2012, p. 475). Recalling the vegetation of his own garden, Untitled is imbued with the rolling bustle of activity. The undulating rhythms of the drawing, resulting in a continuously mobile pictorial experience, snap back and forth spatially, suggesting swaying foliage or the ebb and flow of the ocean tide. The windswept implications of cut fragments of ribbons drifting across the canvas, and churning around its center recalls de Kooning's statement fifty years before, explaining that when he worked he sought to create the sense of a "wind blowing across the surface" (W. de Kooning, quoted in, ibid., p. 477).

Exploiting the subtle counterpoint between matte and reflective surfaces, the composition becomes more fully articulated as a stronger sense of form emerges. Joining together in service of the complete composition, drawing and painting become entirely integrated. With its simplified palette, Untitled is dependent neither on image nor the substance of the paint itself, instead the prevailing elements are the color, light, and the weave of the forms across and against the surface. Even de Kooning once declared in his own inimitable way, "There are three toads at the bottom of my garden, Line, Color, and Form" (G. Garrels (ed.), Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings, The 1980s, exh cat. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, 1995, p. 17).

Marking the 1980s as a coherent period in the artist's oeuvre, line, color, and form melt together to distinguish these late canvases from any of de Kooning's prior cycles, and yet they so clearly call upon the lessons of the preceding 50 years. Simpler, but no less mysterious, de Kooning employed these new distinctive traits together to generate a sense of cohesiveness which in turn animated the surface in much the same way as his earlier works, but in a gentler and altogether more elegant and refined manner. "I am becoming freer," he observed. "I feel that I have found myself more, the sense that I have all my strength at my command. I think you can do miracles with what you have if you accept it...I am more certain in the way I use paint and the brush" (W. de Kooning, quoted in Willem de Kooning, London, 1995, p. 199). As a result of this new, more relaxed assuredness, much of the former aggression of physical struggle of de Kooning's work disappeared in his late work in favor of a 'purer' way of painting.

And while often cited for reciting the same poetic form of the High Renaissance and Baroque highlighted through their dramatically elegant bulging and twisting contours, de Kooning's canvases of the 1980s are "Eighties" paintings by the same token. The difficulties he posed and the license he gave himself set a mark by which his then contemporaries can be measured. In scanning the thinly apportioned webbings of Brice Marden's mid-1980s to mid-1990s canvases, for example, one inevitably thinks of de Kooning's discursive tracery. Conversely, the raked color sediments of Gerhard Richter's recent abstractions flash in the mind as one scrutinizes the scraped-back layers of de Kooning's palette-knife-drawn-pictures. While further, the intensely graphic nature of Untitled's almost cartoon-like curvatures ignites vestiges of Keith Haring's bold outlined figures. And yet, with his health declining, de Kooning defied the many odds which were against him and nevertheless created, what many believe his finest examples yet, or as Robert Storr argues, "of these works, a significant number count among the most remarkable paintings by anyone then active and among the most distinctive, graceful, and mysterious de Kooning himself ever made" (R. Storr, quoted in G. Garrels (ed.), Willem de Kooning, The Late Paintings, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1995, p. 34).

Perhaps best summed up by Gary Garrels, "de Kooning's work, at its core, is about neither style nor myth, but more profoundly incites an exploration of transformation and change. The last decade of de Kooning's painting clarifies something of the vital character of his art: the insistence on invention, freedom, and risk. These are the same qualities that had brought him renown as an Abstract Expressionist. In the 1980s de Kooning renewed their meaning as he renewed his vision of his own art. The old existentialist issues that have surrounded de Kooning's work now appear all the more relevant, transformed as the paintings of the 1980s are from the paintings of the 1940s and 1950s" (G. Garrels (ed.), ibid., p. 34).

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