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

Untitled (The Commuter)

Details
Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
Untitled (The Commuter)
signed 'de Kooning' (lower right)
oil on paper mounted on canvas
40 1/8 x 29 3/4 in. (101.9 x 75.5 cm.)
Painted in 1971-72.
Provenance
Allan Stone Gallery, New York
Campbell-Thiebaud Gallery, San Francisco
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Literature
A. Kingsley, "Willem de Kooning Sidney Janis" ArtForum, December 1972, p. 80 (illustrated).
K. Baker, "Thiebaud's Fascinating Study of De Kooning' San Francisco Chronicle, Jaunaury 26 2002 p. D1 (illustrated in color).
A. Landi, "Willem de Kooning Paul Thiebaud," ArtNews, summer edition 2005, p. 190 (illustrated in color).
Exhibited
New York, Sidney Janis, An Exhibition by de Kooning introducing His Sculpture and New Paintings, October-November 1972, no. 11 (illustrated).
Detroit, Gertrude Kasle, Willem De Kooning: Paintings, Drawing, Sculpture, May-June 1973.
San Francisco, Berggruen Gallery, Willem de Kooning: Selected Works from 1948-1978, March-April 1998.
San Francisco, Paul Thiebaud Gallery and New York, Paul Thiebaud Gallery, Willem de Kooning: Ten Works 1936-1974, January-March 2002 and May-June 2005, n.p., no. 8 (illustrated in color).
Sale room notice
Please note the additional provenance:
Allan Stone Gallery, New York
Campbell-Thiebaud Gallery, San Francisco
Acquired from the above by the present owner

Brought to you by

Jennifer Yum
Jennifer Yum

Lot Essay

By the time Willem de Kooning completed the current lot, Untitled (The Commuter), he had been living and working in the Springs, East Hampton, for about 10 years. The changed environment was the start of a vitally productive period of experimentation and evolution in his work, signaling a change in direction from the work he did during the previous decade in Manhattan. “That de Kooning chose to reject the abstract landscapes which had occupied him in the city during the late 1950s and early 60s just at the moment he moved to the country may seem unusual. But this was merely one change in direction in a complicated artistic evolution marked by numerous transitions from figurative to abstract…Indeed, the coexistence of these two seemingly contradictory poles in his work…has raised many questions about…his role as an abstract artist. De Kooning has never claimed to be an abstract artist and, indeed, he has never entirely rejected the figure. In fact, his figurative and abstract styles sometimes evolve concurrently, sometimes in successive stages” (D. Waldman, Willem de Kooning in East Hampton, New York, 1978, p. 11). Although ranked at the very pinnacle of the painters constituting Abstract Expressionism, he never gave up painting the figure and produced much of his most powerful work depicting it.

Untitled (The Commuter) appears to be a painting of a seated individual. The title further implies that the figure is a person sitting on a commuter train, which de Kooning may have recalled from one of his trips on the Long Island Railroad traveling between East Hampton and New York City, or from rides on the New York City subway. But the significance of the painting is not the subject as such. It is de Kooning’s extraordinary handling of the paint, producing an image that slips between figuration and abstraction, flowing from one painterly approach to another, in concert with the liquid flow of the paint itself. The reds, yellows, pinks, whites, and greens work to define the contours of the figure that is the subject of the work. But they are also lusciously applied daubs, streaks, smears and splotches of paint, with their own capacity to engage the viewer, separate from the work they do to form the image.

There is an impression that the figure in Untitled (The Commuter) is gradually coming into focus, perhaps not fully formed yet, but, if so, unformed in a productive sense, the artist showing the viewer his working method, his thoughts as he builds an image. “In many ways de Kooning was at heart a figurative painter, one in pursuit of an elusive, semiabstract reality that taunted him from the space between his canvas and the model” (R. Smith, “Willem de Kooning: ‘The Figure: Movement and Gesture,’” New York Times, June 16, 2011).

De Kooning has been widely quoted as observing that “the figure is nothing unless you twist it around like a strange miracle.” That approach to figuration is vividly apparent in the current lot, as the central image seems now to merge with its surroundings, now to clarify as figure, alternately contorting, then blurring, then clarifying. “De Kooning saw the figure as a rubbery, infinitely malleable subject perfectly suited to the malleable substance of paint and also to his conception of the painting process as one of unending, never-resolved flux and instability…A painting for de Kooning was a kind of perpetual-motion machine of shifting forms and gestures—his own and his subjects’—amid suggestions of torsos, heads and limbs (and feet!) and glissandos of paint” (R. Smith, Ibid.).

Untitled (The Commuter) vividly demonstrates the process that de Kooning moved through in his work, exploring the possibilities to be found within the languages of both figuration and abstraction. This was a period of experimentation with diverse materials and methods: sculptures in clay and then bronze; lithographs influenced by Japanese ink drawings and calligraphy; as well as continued pushing of the limits of the possible in figuration and abstraction in painting, ultimately leading to his breakthrough paintings of the late 1970s.

De Kooning’s art has been included in thousands of exhibitions. His works are held in the permanent collections of museums in the United States and internationally, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; the Tate Modern, London; and the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964. In 1979, de Kooning received the Andrew W. Mellon Prize. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, honored him with two retrospective exhibitions in 1997 and 2011.

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