Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more
Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)

Untitled V

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
Untitled V
signed 'de Kooning' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
69 1/4 x 79 3/8 in. (175.8 x 201.6 cm.)
Painted in 1980.
Estate of Willem de Kooning, New York
Private collection, New York
Pace Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
A. Berman, “I Am Only Halfway Through,” ARTnews, February 1982, p. 69 (earlier state illustrated in color).
H.F. Gaugh, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1983, pp. 106–107, no. 97 (illustrated in color).
R. Katz, “Not a Pretty Picture,” Esquire Magazine, April 1991, p. 112 (earlier state illustrated).
Y. Fuji and Y. Kenichi, Willem de Kooning, Tokyo, 1993, p. 92, pl. 81 (illustrated in color).
S.J. Checkland, “Blank Expressions,” Times Magazine London, 9 April 1994, pp. 8–9 (earlier state illustrated in color).
R. Storr, “Des Diverses Manières d’Ecorcher un Chat Doté de Sept Vies,” Artpress, 1995, p. 45 (illustrated in color).
S. Yard, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1997, p. 109, no. 94 (illustrated in color).
R. Long, “The Mysteries of de Kooning,” East Hampton Star, 6 May 2004, p. C10 (illustrated in color).
J. Lawrence, “Willem de Kooning: New York,” Burlington Magazine, August 2004, p. 573, no. 94 (illustrated).
S. Yard, Willem de Kooning: Works, Writings and Interviews, Barcelona, 2007, p. 125 (illustrated in color).
J. Saltz, "Definitive: at MoMA, the full, amazing, ever-evolving, never-retreating story of Willem de Kooning," New York Magazine, 26 September 2011, pp. 74-75 (installation view illustrated in color).
East Hampton, Guild Hall, Willem de Kooning: Works from 19511981, May-July 1981, no. 39.
New York, Xavier Fourcade, Willem de Kooning: New Paintings, 19811982, March-May 1982.
Athens, Ethniki Pinakothiki, Modern American Paintings: The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, September-November 1982, p. 50, no. 41 (illustrated).
Fort Collins, Colorado State University, Willem de Kooning: Recent Works, March 1984, p. 3, no. 3 (illustrated)
New York, Waldorf Astoria, Art in Embassies Program: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations residence, October 1999-January 2000.
New York, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Garden in Delft: Willem de Kooning Landscapes 192888, May-June 2004, pp. 50-51, pl. 12 (illustrated in color).
Vienna, Bank Austria Kunstforum and Kunsthal Rotterdam, Willem de Kooning, January–July 2005.
Kunstmuseum Basel, Willem de Kooning: Paintings 19601980, September 2005–January 2006, pp. 166-167, no. 35 (illustrated in color).
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Willem de Kooning: The Last Beginning, September –October 2007, p. 47 (illustrated in color).
New York, Museum of Modern Art, de Kooning: A Retrospective, September 2011-January 2012, pp. 442 and 449, no. 179 (illustrated in color).
Special notice

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This Lot is Withdrawn.

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Lot Essay

In exuberant high-keyed fluid bands of thalo blue punctuated by bright dabs of fiery orange, leafy green, bright yellow, and stunning purple, Willem de Kooning creates a loose pictorial structure of light and color with the realized ambition of a master painter. A dazzling mixture of colors radiate from its surface, bending and shifting as the taper-knife and brush mold and shape contoured ribbons of color in a deeply resonating work of unparalleled beauty. Van Gogh’s Irises spring to mind, not only for the related palette of complementary colors in both, but also for the rhythmic undulations and contrasting directional lines that activate the surface, stimulating the eye in wondrous excitation. The tight organization of marks is set in motion by long parallel horizontal bands and shorter, coalescing or bundled striations based on the grid, while shorter stacked bands fill the central plane in pyramidal formation. In a commanding synthesis of modernism’s shallow space and traditional compositional arrangements, de Kooning straddles the history of Western painting, bringing expressively abstracted dragged and cut strokes to bear on a clear compositional framework. With grand gestures, de Kooning’s calligraphic markings set up interplays between dark and light, as the whiteness of the canvas creates a totalizing atmosphere that evokes an abstracted landscape in traditional cubist space. “I wanted to get back to a feeling of light in painting…. 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” (W. de Kooning, and R. Rosenberg, “Interview with Willem de Kooning,” Artnews 71, no. 5, September 1972, p. 57). The suppleness with which de Kooning articulates space derives from his admiration of Pablo Picasso’s interaction of planes, particularly in his 1930s painting, where contrasts of value are stark and the rhythmic interplay of line and form recharge the surface plane with immense physical force.

Even as de Kooning’s technique shifted primarily from working with a loaded brush to laying on impasto and cutting and shaping it with a taper knife, the compositional basis of his vision remained as close to Cézanne’s “fitting in,” as he called it, as to Picasso’s shallow spaces. A photograph by Hans Namuth of the artist and his wife, Elaine de Kooning, posed in front of the in-process Untitled V demonstrates the manner in which de Kooning “fit in” the interior stacked band parallel bands: the major structural articulations are in place — left vertical striations, lower center horizontal stacking, and complementary color punctuations. Within this scaffolding, de Kooning will insert additional banded thalo blues, filling in the spaces so that what is ultimately rendered is an overall unified chromatic essay, much like one finds, for example, in the late work by Paul Cézanne, Forest Scene, 1900-1902, in which the artist renders a framework of trees — much like the banded horizontal and vertical frame of Untitled V — that enclose an interior event. What Cézanne “fits in” in this case, is the receding path in stepped earth tones ringed with white light. Further, de Kooning’s structure reflects the geometry of the canvas support: the horizontal and vertical bands align with those of the picture plane, creating the sense of a continuous surface, one that mimes even as it expands the regularity of its frame. And yet, the graceful, sinuous lines confound this tracing of the frame. Further, the obvious focal points left and center suggest de Kooning’s indebtedness to Henri Matisse who created “free,” wave-like slippages from one form to the next. De Kooning told his studio assistant Tom Ferrara, “I let myself be influenced by [Matisse],” the effect of which he described in “sweeping hand gestures, a ‘floating quality’ he specifically associated with Matisse’s Dance (1909)” (T. Ferrara in conversation with R. Storr, “At Last Night,” in Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings, San Francisco, 1995, p. 71 and notes 85, 86.) The similarity of undulating gesture can be seen in a work such as Matisse’s Promenade among the Olive Trees of 1905-06, with its near-fauve blues, greens, and pinks. Matisse has rendered a left-centered and central focus in the form of vertically climbing trees that anchor the composition against the nearly levitating diagonal hill out of which they sprout. The curving and twisting trunk of the right tree is mirrored in the bending and looping left vertical form in Untitled V, while de Kooning’s framing vertical parallel bands virtually mimic the shapes of Matisse’s tree trunks. Matisse has also used bright yellow gestures to create light, much like de Kooning daubed glowing yellow and orange that through the greenish-blue tangle of strokes. As de Kooning wrote in 1949, “Whatever an artist’s personal feelings are, as soon as an artist fills a certain area on the canvas or circumscribes it, he becomes historical. He acts from or upon other artists” (W. de Kooning, “A Desperate View,” in S. Yard, Willem de Kooning: Works, Writings, Interviews, Barcelona, 2007, p. 131).

De Kooning’s late paintings demonstrate both a shift in style and a also a continuity between past and present as he brings forward into modernity the optical charge of historical masters of light and the thought and care with which each stroke was laid down. “Cézanne said that every brushstroke has its own perspective. He didn’t mean it in the sense of Renaissance perspective, but that every brushstroke has its own point of view” (W. De Kooning, “Interview by Harold Rosenberg,” op. cit., p. 142). This is true for each stroke in Untitled V, where de Kooning has pared down his gesture such that the somatic relationship with the canvas is palpable: the heightened physical response of hand and arm to laying down paint can be seen in the way the drag of the brush reveals the pressure of the arm, the amount of paint loaded onto it, as well as in the manner in which the artist dissolves the paint into the white surround. Whether in weaving linear gestures or in the feathering off of open-ended streaks, the contrast between dark and light creates optical effects, light hidden and revealed as the brush glides over the surface. Whether lush or sparse, light radiates through chromatic rhythmic moments that de Kooning sets into play. Untitled V is a stunning painting made during a period in which de Kooning’s renewed ambition and inventiveness demonstrate his command of expressive gesture and chromatic sensitivity. It is a work that merges drawing and painting, retaining the lush brushstrokes of the 1970s as it turns toward the exquisite ribbon-like glazes of the last great period of masterworks in the 1980s. Fifteen years earlier, the artist had named three elements fundamental to his painterly vision: “line, color, and form” (W. de Kooning, in T. B. Hess, Willem de Kooning, exh. cat., New York, 1968, p. 26). At the start of the final decade of his career, these elements are foundational for Untitled V. To these the artist added light and scale. By enlarging his canvas — and Untitled V is among his largest — de Kooning creates both immediacy and intimacy. “If I make a big painting I want it to be intimate… I want it to stay an easel painting…. I like a big painting to get so involved that it becomes intimate; that it really starts to lose its measurements; so that it looks smaller. To make a small painting look big is very difficult, but to make big painting look small is also very difficult” (W. de Kooning, “Interview by H. Rosenberg,” op. cit., p. 145). Untitled V, among the artist’s great masterworks of his later years, reflects the process of simplification and intimate engagement to which de Kooning alluded, a unified field of activity, a space, in which an intuitive process drives artistic intention with a “tenacious will to go on as far as space would take him” (R. Storr, “At last Light,” op. cit., p. 69).

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