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A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection


oil on canvas
80 x 70 in. (203.3 x 177.8 cm.)
Painted in 1983.
The Willem de Kooning Foundation, New York
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2014
C. B. Pepper, "The Indomitable de Kooning," The New York Times Magazine, 20 November 1983, p. 43 (studio view illustrated on the front cover).
W. Feaver, "The Incomparable de Kooning," Artnews, May 1994, p. 148 (studio view illustrated).
I. Schlagheck, "Von Ihm Haben Viele Gelernt," Art-das Kunstmagazin, April 1994 (studio view illustrated on the front cover).
Willem de Kooning 1981-1986, exh. cat., New York, L&M Arts, 2007, p. 1 (studio view illustrated).
Willem de Kooning: Figure & Light, exh. cat., New York, L&M Arts, 2010, p. 54 (studio view illustrated).
De Kooning; Five Decades, exh. cat., New York, Mnuchin Gallery, April-June 2019, p. 92 (studio view illustrated).
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Willem de Kooning Ten Paintings 1983-1985, November-December 2013, pp. 30-31, 34-35 and 111 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

"… there is a time in life when you just take a walk: and you walk in your own landscape". Willem de Kooning

Avision of sublime elegance and clarity, Untitled is an outstanding work from Willem de Kooning’s majestic series of ‘ribbon’ paintings. Painted in 1983, and shown with de Kooning on the front cover of The New York Times Magazine on November 20 that year, it captures the dazzling elemental rigour and intuitive liberation that defined the extraordinary final phase of the artist’s oeuvre. Stripping away the dramatic excesses of the 1970s, de Kooning reduces his palette to two tones: red and blue. Rendered with near-calligraphic linear brushstrokes, his bands of color undulate across a luminous expanse of white, choreographed with exquisite, balletic precision. With examples held in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Whitney Museum of American Art, these works stand among de Kooning’s most daring, brilliant and enigmatic creations. Selected by the celebrated curator John Elderfield for the 2013 exhibition Willem de Kooning: Ten Paintings, 1983-1985, the present example is remarkable for its crystalline, reductive power. Four decades of painterly abstraction are distilled into a spectacle of spare, incandescent beauty, all extraneous gesture extinguished in a blaze of light.

The November edition of The New York Times Magazine was headlined by an article entitled “The Indomitable de Kooning”. In it, the writer Curtis Bill Pepper compared the spirit of the artist’s recent work to the grandiose late visions of Titian and Michelangelo. “The effect they gave was one of lightness and joy,” he wrote, at times suggesting “visions of air and water … shot through with transcendental light” (C. B. Pepper, “The Indomitable de Kooning,” The New York Times Magazine, November 20, 1983). The article was a testament to the frenzy surrounding the artist during this period. In the wake of his major international touring retrospective organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art that year, de Kooning reached the pinnacle of his celebrity.

"I am becoming freer. I feel that I have found myself more in the sense that I have all my strength at my command". Willem de Kooning

The present work eloquently demonstrates this self-assuredness. While some of de Kooning’s later works had featured other colors, here his sparse duet of red and blue sings with the confidence of an artist at the height of his creative abilities. In his essay for the 2013 catalogue, Elderfield writes in depth about its facture, illustrating four remarkable photographs of the painting in progress. Taken between 15 and 18 September 1983, they reveal much about the controlled precision of de Kooning’s process during this period. In its initial state, the canvas lay horizontally, with several areas drawn, shaded and painted. Dissatisfied, explains Elderfield, the artist rotated the canvas to portrait format, eliminating a number of the dense colored passages and adding several new linear elements. Flipping his canvas upside down, he continued to erase and embellish, anchoring his network of calligraphic lines like “billowing drapery” to the pointed red crescent form at the top. “In a brilliant final gesture,” writes Elderfield, he cut apart the two blue lines that had connected at the center of the canvas, “allowing space to flow from one side of the picture to the other” (J. Elderfield, Willem de Kooning: Ten Paintings, 1983-1985, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2013, pp. 33-35).

The work demonstrates a number of the artistic influences that preyed upon de Kooning’s imagination during this period. He was fascinated by Henri Matisse’s 1909 painting Dance (I), whose graphic simplicity and “floating quality” he had often admired in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. De Kooning also spoke enthusiastically of the artist’s cut-outs, hailing their “joyous” nature (W. de Kooning, quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swan, De Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2006, p. 589). The spirit of Arshile Gorky, too—his old friend—loomed large after de Kooning attended his Guggenheim retrospective in 1981. Elsewhere, de Kooning praised the “merciless” rigour of his compatriot Piet Mondrian: Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan note that many of the late works “look like a Mondrian reflected in rippling water” (M. Stevens and A. Swan, op cit., p. 601). Curtis Bill Pepper, meanwhile, claimed that the voluptuous curves of these paintings invoked traces of the female form, conjuring the figures of Pablo Picasso (C. B. Pepper, op cit.). Looking back further still, the present work’s celestial radiance may be said to recall the aerial works by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo that de Kooning had encountered during his travels in Italy.

The mid-1980s was a period of immense creativity and productivity for de Kooning. New canvases were commenced almost every week, with many continuing the dance set in motion by others. Elderfield notes a dialogue between the present work and Untitled XXIX, completed in late August, suggesting that the artist may have worked from the same source drawing or directly from the earlier painting itself. This process, he writes, “reveals the extraordinary fertility of de Kooning’s imagination during this period” (J. Elderfield, op cit., p. 32). Waking each morning at dawn and arriving at his easel by eight-o’clock, the artist worked with joyful intensity. Operating on a grand, immersive scale, he painted each primed canvas white before he began, allowing him to work wet-on-wet. After drawing in charcoal, de Kooning would then apply his paint in swift, sweeping strokes, often squeezing his paint directly from the tube. The resulting paintings were not only spatially complex, explains Elderfield, “but also extremely physical pictures, both visually open and densely embodied” (J. Elderfield, press release for Willem de Kooning: Ten Paintings, 1983-1985, 2013).

By the 1980s, de Kooning’s influence was beginning to reach a new generation of artists. Among his emerging disciples were the young Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cecily Brown and Jenny Saville. The latter, writing of his late works, would later compare their reductive beauty to Japanese haiku poetry, lauding the elemental palette of “fire/blood and water/sky” (J. Saville, quoted in K. Vander Weg, “Jenny Saville on Willem de Kooning,” Gagosian Quarterly, April 13, 2018). Inasmuch as they looked outwards, however, his paintings of this period also harboured a deeply introspective quality, recalling—in haunting refrain—the linear, organic qualities of his own early abstracts some four decades prior. A poignant sense of circularity, both literal and metaphorical, pervades the present work, its lines meandering like rivers to new and familiar shores. Its pale surface, gleaming like a distant light source, invites the viewer to step into de Kooning’s interior world. “...There is a time in life when you just take a walk,” he said: “and you walk in your own landscape” (Robert Snyder, Sketchbook No. 1: Three Americans (New York: Time, 1960), film transcript.)

"Of these works, a significant number count among the most remarkable paintings by anyone then active and among the most distinctive graceful, and mysterious de Kooning himself ever made". Robert Storr

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