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Untitled VII

Untitled VII
signed 'de Kooning' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
80 x 70 in. (203.2 x 177.8 cm.)
Painted in 1981.
Xavier Fourcade, New York, 1982
Private collection, 2006
Blain Di Donna, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2012
J. Wolfe, "Willem de Kooning at 90: A Reprise of an Artist's Life," The East Hampton Star, 1994, pp. 11-20 (illustrated).
P. Braff, "A Hometown Tribute to de Kooning at 90," The New York Times, 3 July 1994, p. 13 (illustrated).
Stamford Museum and Nature Center, Abstract Expressionism Lives!, September-November 1982, p. 15 (illustrated).
Fort Collins, Colorado State University, Willem de Kooning: Recent Works, March 1984, p. 3 (illustrated as "no. 5").
East Hampton, Guild Hall Museum, Celebrating Willem de Kooning: Selected Paintings and Sculpture, June-July 1994, no. 13 (illustrated).
Tokyo, Museum of Contemporary Art; Sendai, The Miyagi Museum of Art and Ibaraki, The Museum of Modern Art, Founders and Heirs of the New York School, January-August 1997, p. 83, no. 31 (illustrated).
St. Petersburg, The State Hermitage Museum and Rome, Museo Carlo Bilotti, Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings, July 2006-March 2007, no. 1 (illustrated).
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Willem de Kooning: The Last Beginning, September-October 2007, p. 53 (illustrated).
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Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

I reflected upon the reflections on the water, like the fishermen do.Willem de Kooning

A ravishing arrangement of color, line and form, Willem de Kooning’s Untitled VII is an exquisite painting from 1981, brimming with the ephemeral qualities of sun, sea and sky. One of only fifteen canvases that de Kooning would create during this transformative year, Untitled VII is flooded with glorious North Atlantic light, where lush passages of luminous yellow are paired with lyrical, arcing blue ribbons; these swirl and loop across the surface, some made in a single stroke, others widening out into flat planes. Evoking the bucolic splendor of his home on the East End of Long Island, the painting is also a magisterial ode to paint itself. Pushed, pulled, scraped and brushed, the gestural force of de Kooning’s marks are alive with the artist’s process—a testament to the vigor of this seventy-seven year-old artist who would go on to create some of his greatest paintings during this, the final chapter of his life.

“When he started doing those paintings of the eighties, the light was pouring out,” the artist’s friend and former painting student, Joan Levy said at the time. He asked her “What do you think?,” to which Levy replied, “They’re so ethereal. It looks like you died and went to heaven.” Agreeing, de Kooning said, “Yes, that is what I was going for” (J. Levy & W. de Kooning, quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swan, De Kooning: An American Master, 2004, p. 591). Untitled VII is indeed a light-pouring-out painting, suffused with radiant yellow passages that have been thinned-down and glided onto the surface in wide strokes of the brush, commingling with the bright white underlayer that de Kooning now brought into his paintings in ever greater frequency.

“The artist's ocean-inclined paintings are among the most powerful works created during this period. [...] The undulating flow of the sea’s reflections, the glistening flow of paint’s liquidity, and the neuronal flow of images in his consciousness form a stunning union.”(K. Kertess, “Further Reflection,” in Willem de Kooning: The Last Beginning, exh. cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, 2007, pp. 17 & 13).

The fleeting qualities of light as it streamed into his large and airy Long Island studio fairly obsessed the artist, as did the Atlantic Ocean in all its moody permutations. De Kooning infuses these evanescent qualities into Untitled VII, creating a powerful, visceral work. The eye follows his brush as it zig-zags, loops, arcs and flows--at times scraped, built up and worked wet-into-wet. More often than not, the subtle contours of the blue ribbon-forms allude to the curvature of the female body, as the painting remains powerfully alive with the energy and thrust of the artist’s brush.

One day in the spring of 1981, Willem de Kooning picked up his brush and embarked upon what would become his final series of paintings. He was nearly 77 at the time, and worked steadily throughout that year, ultimately producing fifteen large-scale paintings, to which the present Untitled VII belongs. This body of work (1981-82) forms a bridge between the effervescent, energetic canvases of the late 1970s and the leaner “ribbon paintings” of the later 80s. It was a fruitful period which found de Kooning re-energized, communing with his own past work. “Fewer components jostle for attention [in this body of work]," the New York Times art critic wrote in 1994. “Sensations of bumping, layering and the piling on of experiences are all lessened. Instead, ribbons of color undulate and spread out, introducing a thoroughly engaging lyricism” (P. Braff, “A Hometown Tribute to de Kooning at 90,” The New York Times, Sunday, July 3, 1994, p. 13).

Untitled VII was painted in de Kooning’s East Hampton studio. This was a huge, light-filled space with twenty-five foot ceilings and a short bike ride to the nearby beach at Louse Point. At the end of the day, de Kooning would ride his bicycle over to the water and contemplate the light as it dappled over the
slowly rolling waves of the Atlantic, perhaps thinking of his childhood home in Holland and how far he had come since then. These daily encounters undoubtedly influenced his late work, especially the palette, luminosity and flowing lyrical ribbons in Untitled VII. Indeed, Klaus Kertess has written that “the artist's ocean-inclined paintings are among the most powerful works created during this period. [...] The undulating flow of the sea’s reflections, the glistening flow of paint’s liquidity, and the neuronal flow of images in his consciousness form a stunning union” (K. Kertess, “Further Reflection,” in Willem de Kooning: The Last Beginning, exh. cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, 2007, pp. 17 & 13).

At this time, de Kooning found himself in a rather retrospective mood, looking back over his past successes and failures as he considered the kind of painter he might be in his great old age. “Instead of just looking back in reverie to his past, as happens so frequently in old age, he transformed looking back into looking forward,” Klaus Kertess again explained (K. Kertess, Ibid., 2007, p. 18). So, too, did de Kooning begin to consider the work of his peers (many of whom ultimately did not make it to their seventies as he did). This included the artist’s old friend and colleague, Arshile Gorky, who he said was “always with him” during this time. It was the strength of Gorky’s calligraphic line and the mysterious power of his biomorphic forms that would call out to the artist in the thirty years since the artist’s death. In 1983 this reached a climax of sorts when de Kooning visited Gorky’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

According to the artist’s friend, Conrad Fried, de Kooning “wanted ‘ease’” in his paintings at this time. “He said that if you work painstakingly, what happens is that some of that pain comes across to the viewer. But if you work freely, then that comes across and makes the viewer feel free” (C. Fried, quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swan, op. cit, p. 591). Part of this ease would come from close observation and communion with another great artist, Henri Matisse. De Kooning had long admired the simple graphic power of Matisse’s La Danse that he often visited at MoMA, and the later cut-outs. “Lately I’ve been thinking,” he said in 1980, “that it would be nice to be influenced by Matisse. I mean, he’s so lighthearted. I have a book about how he was old and he cut out colored patterns and he made it so joyous. I would like to do that, too—not like him, but joyous, more or less” (W. de Kooning, quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swann, op. cit., p. 589). De Kooning seems to have gotten his wish, when, in 1994 Untitled VII was exhibited at East Hampton’s Guild Hall and illustrated in the New York Times, while being compared to Matisse. The Times critic Phyllis Braff commented: “One thinks of the happy psychological high in late Matisse, where everything also curves with great purpose” (P. Braff, op. cit.,, p. 13).

Willem de Kooning’s Untitled VII is a sumptuous, glowing painting where undulating ribbons of luminous color meet wide, icy passages of bright white. It has been singled out as one of the best of the 1981 paintings, appearing in at least five international exhibitions, and illustrated in the New York Times in honor of de Kooning’s 90th birthday exhibition. A stunning testament to the artist’s astonishing capacity for reinvention, it epitomizes the profound transformations that de Kooning’s oeuvre underwent during the 1980s.

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