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


Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
oil on canvas
59 x 54 ¾ in. (150 x 139 cm.)
Painted in 1975-1977.
Estate of Willem de Kooning, New York
Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2000
T. B. Hess, "In de Kooning’s Studio," Vogue, April 1978, p. 238 (studio view illustrated in color).
New York, L & M Arts, Willem de Kooning 1981-1986, September-November 2007, p. 15 (studio view illustrated in color).
de Kooning: A Restrospective, exh. cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2011, p. 440 (studio view illustrated in color).
J. Zilczer, A Way of Living: The Art of Willem de Kooning, London, 2014, p. 237, no. 268 (studio view illustrated in color).
Zurich, Thomas Ammann Fine Art, Willem de Kooning, June-September 1999, n.p., no. 15 (illustrated in color).
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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis

Lot Essay

Painted between approximately 1975 and 1977, Untitled was executed during the period in which painting would become his main focus. Across the surface of this energetic painting, the twisting and winding ribbons of color and pooled passages of diaphanous paint attest to the natural affinity that de Kooning had both for the poetry and processes of painting. By this stage in his career the artist had abandoned the ground-breaking depictions of women with which he made his name in the 1950s, and began to embrace the bucolic environment of Long Island and embarked on a series of vibrant new paintings that would come to define the rest of his career.

Across the surface of Untitled, de Kooning assembles a wide variety of gestural marks which fill the surface of the painting with a sense of unrestrained energy. Bold streams of red and blue paint are intertwined with slender, more nimble, black lines as they meander throughout the composition, dividing up distinct areas of painterly activity. The passages have been rendered in various shades of warm fleshy pinks, darker salmon pinks, mottled whites, and vibrant yellows. Some are applied thickly, while others are applied so thinly that they allow layers of underpaint to reveal themselves through the diaphanous upper layers. This allows for an almost archaeological excavation of de Kooning’s process of complex layering, and through works such as Untitled, we can witness how he built up, and finally arrived at, his final composition.

Untitled belongs to a period of brilliant achievement in which we see de Kooning move away from the central compositional arrangement of his iconic Woman paintings of the 1950s. Here, in these refreshingly vibrant canvases, visual interest darts around the picture plane, tracing shifting vectors that splay outward from the center to corners. There are traces of slightly recessive flesh tones and reds that pop into the field of vision, and whites—evident in the ground color and mixed with pigment—that offer intervals of calm. This roiling activation of the surface seems to create an almost chaotic field, where light is captured and released in shallow space and made to illuminate a simmering rectangular plane. Indeed, light per se becomes a thematic in the artist’s paintings from the 1970s. The comment to critic Harold Rosenberg from 1972—“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 was very appealing to me...”—describes what de Kooning seems to have rendered in Untitled, a study in luminescence and form, touched with body and landscape colors, the greens of trees and grass, the blues of sky and sea, the flesh tones of an exploded figure. Having moved to the Springs, East Hampton, in 1963, de Kooning seemed to transcribe the human form into the totalizing atmosphere of this light-infused environment. “When I came here I made the color… of grey-green grass, the beach grass, and the ocean…. Indescribable tones, almost. I started working with them and insisted that they would give me the kind of light I wanted” (H. Rosenberg, “Interview with Willem de Kooning,” ARTnews 71, September 1972, p. 58).

1975 proved to be something of a turning point in the artist’s career. As described by his biographers Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, in the spring of that year, de Kooning’s “long dry spell ended… boldly, grandly, dramatically.” During the following six months, he worked on nearly two dozen sumptuous canvases, surprising even himself at the pace and level of accomplishment at which he worked. “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, as quoted by M. Stevens and Annalyn Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2013, pp. 560-61). What was the foundation of this new outpouring of creativity? Stevens and Swan describe the immediate source of stimulation as the watery landscape of de Kooning’s new home in Springs, on the eastern end of New York’s Long Island, and in particularly how the light bounced off the constantly shifting surface of the oceans, lakes and ponds that dotted the landscape. “He said that he was really intrigued with the way all of those colors would reflect off the surface of the water, and how the forms would emerge and dissolve… It provided a huge supply of possibilities for paintings” (Ibid., p. 561).

As de Kooning pursued this new sense of artistic vigor, his depictions of the female figures began to be usurped by his verdant landscapes. In 1976 the artist noted, “When I moved into this house, everything seemed self-evident. The space, the light, the trees—I just accepted it without thinking about it much. Now I look around with new eyes. I think it’s all a kind of miracle” (De Kooning quoted in M. Prather, Willem de Kooning Paintings, exh. cat. Washington, D.C., 1994, p. 197). Paintings from this period have become some of his most celebrated, with the critic David Sylvester noting that “…the paintings [of 1977]…with their massively congested, luminous color, their contrasts between flowing and broken forms, attain at their best a total ‘painterlyness’ in which marks and image coalesce completely and every inch of the canvas quivers with teeming energy” (D. Sylvester, quoted in J. Elderfield, de Kooning: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011, p. 430).

A celebrated modern master, de Kooning has been the subject of numerous museum retrospectives at institutions like the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and his East Hampton works specifically were the subject of an exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. John Russell may have captured Willem de Kooning’s legacy best when he wrote in The New York Times: “Some of the most memorable marks ever made with paint on canvas have been made at one time or another by Willem de Kooning” (J. Russell, quoted in J. Elderfield (ed.), De Kooning: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011, p. 399).

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