Acquired by the present owner in 1979, Willem de Kooning’s East Hampton VI is the product of a particularly creative period of the artist’s career when he was struggling with the traditions of Abstract Expressionist roots and searching for a new direction for his painting. Inspiration came in the form of East Hampton, the small town at the far end of New York’s Long Island, and long a place of inspiration for generations of artists. Far from the hustle and bustle of the city, and in the bucolic surroundings of the countryside, de Kooning found new inspiration in the dramatic light offered by his new surroundings. “Indescribable tones…” he described. “I started working with them and insisted that they would give me the kind of light I wanted. One was lighting up the grass. That became that kind of green. One was lighting up the water. That became that grey. Then I got a few more colors… I got into painting in the atmosphere I wanted to be in. It was like the reflection of light” (W. de Kooning, quoted by D. Waldman, Willem de Kooning in East Hampton, exh. cat., Guggenheim Musuem, New York, 1975, p. 27). The resulting paintings combined the abstract figuration of his earlier work, but now subsumed within his beloved landscape. Widely exhibited in Europe, East Hampton VI is emblematic of this new body of work, a continuation of his figurative past, but showing signs of the last great phase of his career that was still to come.
Those [paintings] of the mid-1970s are a marvel of innovation and achieve a new reconciliation of three-dimensional form with the canvas surface and an even further integration of figure with landscape”
With a series of baroque flourishes from the artist’s heavily laden brush, de Kooning brings together a union of figurative and abstract elements. Against a golden ground, high-keyed ribbons of paint traces out the elemental forms of a figure; a pair of what appears to be pale legs silhouetted in red, can be seen in the lower right corner, complemented by another, torqued, figure hovering above. Elsewhere, brilliant flourishes of electric blue, verdant green and warm pinks emerge from the maelstrom of the artist’s painted surface. Glimpses of figurative elements emerge, before being subsumed in a sea of abstraction. This blending together of traditionally oppositional elements is what makes de Kooning’s paintings from this period so exciting. Writing in the catalogue for an exhibition called Willem de Kooning in East Hampton organized by the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1978, the curator Diane Waldman wrote, “…those [paintings] of the mid-1970s are a marvel of innovation and achieve a new reconciliation of three-dimensional form with the canvas surface and an even further integration of figure with landscape” (D. Waldman, Willem de Kooning in East Hampton, exh. cat., Guggenheim Musuem, New York, 1975, p. 27).
In these works, de Kooning reveals a new dimension in his oeuvre and reaffirms his central position in American art. Exuberant, free and innovatory, they are a late flowering of his painting”
Although de Kooning was already a celebrated colorist by this point in his career, his paintings of the 1970s saw a new degree of chromatic richness to his canvases . The special quality of the light in East Hampton—that sense of clarity that coastal light can imbue—made the painted surfaces more vibrant, more alive. “The strong value contrasts in the earlier work have given way to an astonishing range of subtle and voluptuous color,” writes Waldman, “sun-drenched pinks and greens, mauves, blue-greens, reddish oranges and the familiar but revitalized electric blue” (Ibid. p. 26). Much like the late paintings of Claude Monet celebrated the intensity of light with increasingly abstract images, de Kooning found the intensity and purity of light in his new surroundings helped to break down forms to their elemental units.
De Kooning’s paintings inspired by East Hampton became such an important body of work within his oeuvre that in 1978, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York dedicated an entire exhibition to them, the artist’s first big museum show in New York in nine years. During interviews to publicize the show, de Kooning explained how the French master Henri Matisse—and works such as the serpentine figure of Pink Nude, 1935 (Baltimore Museum of Art)—were becoming a greater influence on the fluidity of his own female forms, and critics described the “extraordinary energy and confidence” of much of the work on display, specifically highlighting the artist’s “delectable painterly surfaces” (M. Stevens & A. Swan, De Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2005, p. 581).
East Hampton VI was painted in 1977, shortly after de Kooning returned to concentrating on painting following a period of working in lithography and sculpture. It is with works such as this that he appears to have rediscovered his joy in the act of painting, in the motion of laying down ribbons and passages of rich color in celebration of the light and forms he found in his surroundings. This reinvigoration would lead to the triumphal final body of work that would sustain him for the rest of his life. It is in these works from the 1970s, that this last great flourish begins, and—as Waldman explains—in that respect they form an vital part of his career. “In these… works [from the mid-1970s] de Kooning reveals a new dimension in his oeuvre and reaffirms his central position in American art. Exuberant, free and innovatory, they are a late flowering of his painting” (D. Waldman, op. cit. p. 27).
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).