Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
The Collection of Joan and Preston Robert Tisch
Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)

Untitled XVIII

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
Untitled XVIII
signed 'de Kooning' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
59 1/2 x 55 in. (151.1 x 139.7 cm.)
Painted in 1976.
Fourcade Gallery, New York
Mr. and Mrs. Richard E. Lang, Medina, Washington
Pace Gallery, New York
Private collection, 1981
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 05 November 1985, lot 70
Elliot and Nancy Wolk, Scarsdale
L & M Arts, New York
Acquired from the above by the late owners, 2006
J. Gruen, "The Inside Story: A Scarsdale Home Redesigned for Art," Architectural Digest, November 1986, p. 144 (installation view illustrated).
J. F., "Focus: US and European postwar art: L & M Arts LLC, From de Kooning to Giacommeti," International Herald Tribune, 09-10 September 2006, p. 10 (illustrated).
B. S. Mason, "Thousands Shop French Fair in Revitalized Grand Palais," Art & Antiques, November 2006, p. 50.
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Willem de Kooning in East Hampton, February 1978, p. 70, no. 41 (illustrated).
Pittsburgh, Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Willem de Kooning: Pittsburgh International Series, October 1979-January 1980, p. 81, no. 50 (illustrated).

Lot Essay

Distinguished by its lavishly painted surface and riotous palette, Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XVIII epitomizes the last great cycle of paintings that ushered forth from the artist in a final flourish between the years 1975 and 1977. Widely considered to be among his best work, these large-scale landscapes—with Untitled XVIII a seminal example—evoke the bucolic splendor of the artist’s East Hampton studio at Springs. In exuberant strokes of effervescent, translucent paint, de Kooning captures and distills the particular essence of that seaside hamlet, using wide swathes of deep, marine blue, touches of buttery yellow and languid strokes of fleshy peach. Penetrated by an inner glow, the painting evokes the specific character of North Atlantic light, making it a harmonious ballet of color, form and gesture. Having featured in de Kooning’s exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1978, Untitled XVIII belongs to a select group of only about twenty paintings that the artist exhibited, in what would be his first solo museum show in New York in nine years.

Untitled XVIII is a sumptuous work of almost-Baroque abundance as a torrent of energetic brushstrokes are unleashed to produce a cacophonous surface built up and refined over the course of many revisions. “One day,” de Kooning has said, “I’d like to get all the colors in the world into one single painting” (W. de Kooning, quoted in J. Russell, “I See the Canvas and I Begin,” New York Times, 5 February 1978, p. D1). Indeed, de Kooning’s resplendent range in Untitled XVIII encompases a virtual rainbow. Rich passages of brilliant color abound; an aqueous, briny, sea-soaked passage of shimmering blue evokes the deep and fathomless ocean, while fleshy areas of luminous peach convey flashes of bare skin surrounded by frothy waves and or a late afternoon shower. “Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented,” de Kooning once claimed. “Never before in history had it taken such a place in painting” (W. de Kooning, quoted in “The Renaissance and Order,” in T. Hess, Willem de Kooning, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1968, p. 142). A host of supporting colors enliven the already jubilant scene, including lavender, pink, yellow, burnt sienna, inky black and luminous oyster-white. Typical to this series, the sheer variety of de Kooning’s painterly application is staggering; whether slowly and methodically applied in the wide housepainters’ brushes he came to favor at the time, or luxuriously dragged in swooping arcs or graceful zigzags only to be sanded down to a prismatic smear, de Kooning’s gesture becomes the driving vehicle of the painterly action in Untitled XVIII, evidence of a mature painter at a profound moment of clarity and passion.

“Veering between powerful moods,” wrote de Kooning’s biographers, the artist vacillated “on the one hand” between “heightened joy” and “on the other, [between] isolation and yearning melancholy” (M. Stevens and A. Swan, De Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2005, p. 560). He had fallen for a fashionable socialite some thirty years his junior, Emilie “Mimi” Kilgore, with whom he would engage in a ten-year affair. In the Spring of 1975, after what had been a lengthy spell in which he managed to abstain from alcohol, de Kooning painted twenty landscapes over the course of six months. The ephemeral qualities of Springs—highly prized for the particular aspect of its light and the rural ease of its location at the eastern end of long island—were folded into and subsumed within these profound new works. Taking daily bike rides around the hamlet, de Kooning relished the sea spray of the incoming waves as they crashed upon the shore, and he spent long afternoons pondering the large-scale canvases in his studio as the late afternoon light caressed everything it touched. In paintings such as …Whose Name Was Writ in Water of 1975, along with Untitled V of 1977 (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo) and XVIII (North Atlantic Light) of 1977 (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam) de Kooning revitalized a languishing genre, reinterpreting the tradition of pastoral landscape painting to produce watery figures subsumed within quavering, aqueous strokes. For an artist nearing the end of his life, it seems that Mimi awakened within him a renewed passion, which poured out in a staggering series of abstractions. Indeed, over the next few years, de Kooning experienced renewed vigor and intense concentration, during which he could rely upon his own intuitive process, having refined it over the course of several decades. “I couldn’t miss,” he said. “It’s strange. It’s like a man at a gambling table [who] feels that he can’t lose” (W. de Kooning, in M. Stevens and A. Swan, ibid., pp. 560-561).

The lavishly painted surface of de Kooning’s paintings of 1975-1979 are the product of several layers of deliberation and refinement. De Kooning first began by preparing the canvas. To prepare the ground, he covered the entire surface in multiple layers of a radiant lead white, which were then sanded down and painted again, only to be sanded anew, “until the surface became almost translucent” (M. Stevens and A. Swan, De Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2004, p. 562). He also worked with large-scale vellum drawings in which he had traced charcoal outlines of previous paintings. These were applied to the canvas in various permutations, combined and recombined until de Kooning felt satisfied. The housepainters’ brushes that he favored were worn and weathered from a seasoned painter’s trial and error, making their soft bristles primed for the task. Nearby, large salad bowls of oil paint mixed with safflower oil, kerosene and water stood at the ready, having achieved a frothy consistency.

“If readiness is not all, in this headlong art of De Kooning’s, it is a great part of the battle,” John Russell wrote of de Kooning’s process in 1978. “His studio tables look like cross-mating of the workshop of a Renaissance chemist with the kitchen of very good cook who is big on sauces. In bowl after bowl, inscrutable mixtures quietly get themselves together. To make precisely the right sexy juices for those new paintings demands an enormous application. Oil paint is thinned with water. Safflower oil, kerosene and mayonnaise are pressed into service as binding agents. People often think that a great painter has to have great brushes, and it’s true that some of them insist on hair so fine that it could put the silkworms out of business. But De Kooning uses (apart from knives and spatulas) everyday housepainters’ brushes that come in a “Pak-o-Four” for $1.49. He also has devices of his own invention—pullings and tuggings and overlayings—for the perfecting of the licked look that gives so sumptuous a consistency to his recent paintings” (J. Russell, op. cit., p. D1).

No doubt the result of the artist’s lengthy process of preparation and many hours spent in rapt concentration, de Kooning captured and distilled the many ephemeral qualities of his home on East Hampton in the sumptuous surface of Untitled XVIII, which is penetrated by an inner glow, softly imbued with the particularly incandescent quality of its North Atlantic light. He was able to translate the sun-dappled grasses of this seaside hamlet and the glinting sunshine of the nearby ocean with its many turbulent moods into a rapturous creation verging on Baroque splendor. “De Kooning redefined the pastoral tradition in an original way,” summarized his biographers, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. “He found a means, at last, to unite the figure and the landscape into an ideal image that he could believe in. … He presented the figures in the landscape--rather than from without. He was not the outsider who surveys the ideal scene from afar. He had passed through the looking glass; he created, as he put it, ‘a feeling of being on the other side of nature’” (M. Stevens and A. Swan, op. cit., p. 571).

More from Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale

View All
View All