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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Property from a Renowned Private New York Collection

Untitled XXI

Untitled XXI
signed 'de Kooning' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
70 x 80 in. (177.8 x 203.2 cm.)
Painted in 1977.
Xavier Fourcade Gallery, New York
James Goodman Gallery, New York
Private collection, Texas
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1988
Cedar Falls, University of Northern Iowa, The Gallery of Art; The St. Louis Art Museum; Cincinnati, The Contemporary Arts Center and Akron Art Institute, de Kooning 1969-78, November 1978-June 1979, no. 19.
Dusseldorf, Galerie Hans Strelow, Willem de Kooning Gemalde, Skulpturen, Zeichnungen, November-December 1980, no. 19.
Milan, Studio Marconi, de Kooning: Dipinti, Disegni, Sculture, March-April 1985, p. 40 (illustrated).
New York, James Goodman Gallery, Six Artists in Three Forms Part I: de Kooning, Johns, Kelly, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Stella, September-October 1986.
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Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Held in the same private collection for nearly thirty-five years, Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XXI is a joyous and masterful painting from one of the artist’s most beloved periods. Executed in 1977, a year described by the art critic David Sylvester as de Kooning’s annus mirabilis (his “miraculous year”), the present work is a sumptuous Abstract Expressionist painting that abounds with references to both the female figure and the light-filled landscape surrounding the artist’s studio in East Hampton. De Kooning’s 1977 works are widely celebrated as among the most important of his career, and are owned by major institutions and leading private collectors. Untitled XXI, compared to his other paintings from this period, is exceptionally radiant and offers a retrospective of sorts, combining in one sublime work de Kooning’s longtime obsession with abstraction, landscape and the figure, all of it rendered in powerful brushstrokes and his signature palette of pinks and cobalt blues.

Untitled XXI – or Number 21, as it is sometimes called – is a large-scale work measuring 70 by 80 inches. It is one of the most ebullient and fascinating of the 1977 works. Here we find an ecstatic combination of de Kooning’s passion for the inspired light of East Hampton, for silken flesh and peachy hues. Much as Vermeer is known for his deep blues and Jasper Johns is known for his moody grays, de Kooning is celebrated for his salmon-like pinks and the sensual world they evoke. From the time of his seminal Pink Landscape (1942) and famous Pink Angels (1945), he seized on the color pink as a metaphor for both flesh and sky, and the two are breathtakingly intertwined in Untitled XXI.

At first glance, the painting looks like a pure abstraction, with twisting ribbons of cobalt blue and red weaving against a pearly white ground. But if one looks closely, traces of the real world rise into view. It is possible to read the painting as a landscape, an airy and open pastoral dominated by the infinite expanse of a pink-streaked sky. It’s not a literal landscape – not the view outside a window – but rather the memory of a landscape recollected inside the calm of an artist’s studio. The top half of the painting suggests the symbolic light of daybreak, “the rosy-fingered dawn” described by Homer in The Odyssey—signaling new beginnings in a long, ongoing journey.

That top portion of the painting is executed with broad, sweeping gestures that hint at de Kooning’s radical predilection for laying down strokes with movements of his whole arm rather than just his wrist. He loved using a housepainter’s wide brushes in addition to fussy little fine-art brushes, allowing him to give free reign to his instinct for large and passionate gestures. The lower half of the painting, by contrast, is densely packed with shorter strokes and biomorphic shapes that were rendered “with the wrist.” They give the sensation that one is watching as the world is both pulled apart and quickly reassembled—a world made entirely of paint.

One can also decipher bits of figuration scattered throughout the painting. For instance, in the upper right quadrant, a window is outlined in thick vermilion strokes. It is a fascinating detail, harking back to the room-with-a-window that was often the setting for de Kooning’s paintings in the 1940s and early 1950s. Those were the works that typically featured wide-eyed female figures posing in the studio and one feels their presence in Untitled XXI. On the left, a woman with blue eyes and red lips gazes out at the viewer. To the side of her, a giant blue-green zigzag cuts vertically through space, offering an added jolt of energy. Towards the lower right, one can make out a female nude with splayed legs. “Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented,” de Kooning stated, and he evinced an obsession with skin even in his most abstract works. (W. de Kooning, "The Renaissance and Order," trans/formation 1, no. 2 (1951): 85-87). As we see in Untitled XXI, he was capable of embracing contradictory experiences and states. He mingles exteriors and interiors, abstraction and figuration, the vanished past and the vivid present.

This was a profound moment of creativity for the artist. As he later said, “I couldn’t miss. 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, De Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2005, pp. 560-561).

In 1977, when de Kooning painted Untitled XXI, he was no longer a young artist. He was seventy-four years old and revered the world over as an American master who had transported the richness and sensuality of Dutch and Flemish painting to New York. In his private life, he had recently embarked on a relationship with Emilie “Mimi” Kilgore, a socialite who was thirty years his junior, and he seems to have found a measure of peace. Some critics have noted the liquid quality of his paint in this period. In Untitled XXI, his winding strokes at times appear so fresh that the surface actually glistens, as if the painting were still wet or completed just last week.

Although Untitled XXI has a look of speed and spontaneity about it, de Kooning was known to spend months on a work. In 1977, he usually began new paintings with a layer of “lead white,” which he then sanded down and re-painted. He kept painting and sanding until the surface appeared almost translucent. He also worked with large-scale charcoal drawings to help transfer his swooping forms onto canvas. His paint, which he mixed in ceramic bowls, was a personal recipe that combined unexpected ingredients. Oil paint was thinned with water, and safflower oil and kerosene were used as binding agents.

During this period, de Kooning tended to work on what he described as “squarish” paintings. Untitled XXI is definitely “squarish” but slightly horizontal, a format that tends to suggest landscape (as opposed to the vertical human figure). “When I came here I made the color of sand,” de Kooning would later recall, referring to his move from New York City out to the Hamptons in 1962-3. “As if I picked up sand and mixed it. And the grey-green grass, the beach grass, and the ocean was all kind of steely grey most of the time. When the light hits the ocean there is kind of a grey light on the water…Indescribable tones, almost. I started working with them and insisted that they would give me the kind of light I wanted. [...] I did very well with that.” (W. de Kooning, quoted in D. Waldman, Willem de Kooning in East Hampton, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1978, p. 27).

In 1978, de Kooning was the subject of an exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The show was entitled “Willem de Kooning in East Hampton” and shifted critical attention from his early “Women” paintings, with their raw urban energy, to his interest in luminous landscape. He worked only during the day, in order to take advantage of the natural light, and it is perhaps the sense of light that remains the hallmark of his 1977 paintings. “The light comes pouring in from all over” noted the critic John Russell, in his New York Times review of the Guggenheim show. “It changes every hour of the day; and although most times it is a delicate and steely gray in color, it can take fire at sunset” (J. Russell, op. cit., p. 112).

Light can also bring the sublime clarity we associate with daybreak, and it is this light – the light of morning – that suffuses Untitled XXI, a painting that abounds with the brightness and promise of a fresh new day. When de Kooning painted it, he was working from a sense of intuitive abandon, while maintaining absolute control over the resultant whole. Indeed, in this, a profound and original work, de Kooning looks backward to pave the way forward, and does so with brilliant success.

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