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signed 'de Kooning' (lower right); signed again 'de Kooning' (on the reverse)
oil, enamel and paper collage on paper mounted on board
24 1/8 x 36 1/8 in. (61.3 x 91.8 cm.)
Executed in 1947
Egan Gallery, New York.
Mr. and Mrs. John Stephan, New York, 1949.
Ruth Stephan Franklin, New York (by descent from the above).
Andrew Crispo Gallery, Inc., New York.
Private collection, Europe.
Washburn Gallery, New York.
Allan Stone Gallery, New York.
Thomas W. Wiesel, San Francisco.
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 12 November 2002, lot 11.
Acquired at the above sale by the late owner.
R. Goldwater, ed., "William DeKooning [sic]," Magazine of Art, February 1948, p. 54 (illustrated).
R. Stephan, ed., "William deKooning [sic]," The Tiger's Eye, vol. 7, no. 3, 15 March 1948, p. 101 (illustrated).
T. Hess, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1959 (illustrated, pl. 76).
M. Gill and D. Sylvester, Ten Modern Artists, Programme 10, London, BBC 1964 (video).
G. Drudi, Willem de Kooning, Milan, 1972, p. 31 (illustrated).
H. Rosenberg, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1973 (illustrated, pl. 50).
H. Gaugh, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1983, p. 27, fig. 19 (illustrated).
W. Seitz, Abstract Expressionist Painting in America, Cambridge and London, 1983 (illustrated, pl. 19).
S. Yard, Willem de Kooning: The First Twenty-Six Years in New York, 1927-1952, New York and London, 1986, pp. 161-162, no. 181 (illustrated).
D. Waldman, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1988, p. 59 (illustrated, pl. 41).
J. Elderfield, Frankenthaler, New York, 1989, p. 38 (illustrated).
S. Yard, "The Angel and the Demoiselle: Willem de Kooning's Black Friday," Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, vol. 50, no. 2, 1991, p. 6, fig. 5 (illustrated in color).
P. Brach, "De Kooning's Changes of Climate: A Personal Meditation on the Artist's Career," Art in America, vol. 83, January 1995, p. 74 (illustrated in color).
Willem de Kooning: the Late Paintings, the 1980s, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1995, p. 10, fig. 1 (illustrated).
Continuing Education Bulletin, University of New Hampshire at Durham, vol. 2, no. 4, September 1995 (illustrated on the front cover).
S. Yard, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1997, p. 40, pl. 29 (illustrated in color).
D. Belgrad, The Culture of Spontaneity: Improvisation and the Arts in Post War America, Chicago and London, 1998, p. 97, fig. 3.7 (illustrated).
The Tiger's Eye: The Art of a Magazine, exh. cat., New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery, 2002, p. 42 (illustrated).
D. Anfam, "New Haven: Tiger's Eye," Burlington Magazine, vol. CXLIV, no. 1190, May 2002, p. 321 (illustrated).
M. Stevens and A. Swan, De Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2004, pp. 251-252.
B. Hess, Willem de Kooning, 1904-1997: Content as a Glimpse, Cologne, 2004, p. 25.
S. Yard, Willem de Kooning: Works, Writings, Interviews, Barcelona, 2007, pp. 36 and 44 (illustrated in color).
R. Shiff, Between Sense and de Kooning, London, 2011, p. 19, fig. 2 (illustrated in color).
Sammlung Hubert Looser, exh. cat., Vienna, Bank Austria Kunstforum, April-July 2012, pp. 210-213, no. 4 (illustrated in color).
Willem de Kooning: Ten Paintings, 1983-1985, exh. cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, 2013, p. 62, fig. 23 (illustrated in color).
C. Waid, The Signifying Eye: Seeing Faulkner's Art, Athens, Georgia, 2013, p. 360.
J. Zilczer, A Way of Living: The Art of Willem de Kooning, London, 2014, pp. 84 and 88 (illustrated in color).
F. Steininger, et al., Restless Gestures: Collection Hubert Looser, Oslo, 2017, p. 69, fig. 4 (illustrated in color).
M. Gabriel, Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art, New York, 2018, p. 212.
New York, Egan Gallery, de Kooning, April-May 1948 (illustrated on the exhibition announcement).
New York, The Museum of Modern Art; Saratoga Springs, Skidmore College; New Britain, Art Museum of New Britain; Fargo, North Dakota Agricultural College; Jacksonville, MacMurray College for Women; Carbondale, Southern Illinois University; Winnipeg, University of Manitoba; East Lansing, Michigan State College; Poughkeepsie, Vassar College; Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia Institute of Technology; Fort Worth, Texas Christian University; Northampton, Smith College Museum of Art; New York, Binghamton Museum of Fine Arts; Northfield, Carleton College; Bowling Green State University; Ann Arbor, University of Michigan; Norman, University of Oklahoma; Nashville, The Parthenon; Chattanooga, Chattanooga Art Association, Hunter Gallery of Art; Evanston, Northwestern Illinois; Williamsburg; College of William and Mary; Ithaca, Willard Straight Hall at Cornell University; Oswego, State University of New York, Teachers College; Manchester, Currier Gallery of Art and South Hadley, Mount Holyoke College, Calligraphic and Geometric: Two Recent Linear Tendencies in American Painting, October 1950-May 1954, no. 5.
Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, 2nd Biennale of the Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo, December 1953-February 1954, no. 13.
New York, Allan Stone Gallery, de KooningNewman, October-November 1962.
New York, The Jewish Museum, Black and White, December 1963-February 1964.
Cambridge, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Within the Easel Convention: Sources of Abstract Expressionism, May-June 1964, p. 17, no. 3.
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Word and Image, December 1965-January 1966, no. 18.
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; London, Tate Gallery; New York, The Museum of Modern Art; Art Institute of Chicago and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Willem de Kooning, September 1968-September 1969, no. 22 (Amsterdam: illustrated), no. 25 (London and New York: p. 56, illustrated).
New York, Andrew Crispo Gallery, Four Abstract Expressionist Painters: de Kooning, Kline, Pollock, and Pousette-Dart: A Selection of Paintings and Drawings, September-October 1975.
New York, Andrew Crispo Gallery, A Bicenntennial Exhibition: Two Hundred Years of American Painting 1776 to 1976, May-August 1976.
New York, Andrew Crispo Gallery, Twentieth Century American Masters, May-June 1977.
New York, Allan Stone Gallery, Liquefying Cubism, October 1994-January 1995, p. vii (illustrated in color, pl. 22, installation view illustrated).
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Willem de Kooning: A Centennial Exhibition, April-June 2004, pp. 28-29 (illustrated in color).
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Willem de Kooning: The Last Beginning, September-October 2007, n.p. (illustrated in color).
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Willem de Kooning: A Retrospective, September 2011-January 2012, p. 163, 167-169, 171 and 173, no. 53 (illustrated in color).
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Max Carter
Max Carter Vice Chairman, 20th and 21st Century Art, Americas

Lot Essay

One of the most important early paintings by Willem de Kooning to remain in private hands, Orestes was painted during a period which marked the dawn of the artist as an abstract painter. Widely cited in the literature and exhibited in de Kooning’s first solo exhibition, it was with this 1947 painting that the artist abandoned the vestiges of figuration in his work and finally succumbed to abstraction. The predominant black and white palette, the evocative rounded forms, and the painterly surface all mark out this particular work as an example from a pivotal moment in the artist’s career when he was pushing at the accepted boundaries of painting and exploring the full potential of his vital new mode of painting. Transgressing hundreds of years of art history, de Kooning abandons traditional notions of shading, volume and modeling of space, John Elderfield, curator of the artist’s seminal 2011 retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, to identity Orestes as unique in the artist’s body of work in affording a primary function to the wide, flat forms that would come to dominate his compositions from this period.
Populated by a series of familiar, yet inscrutable, forms set against a pale ground, Orestes belongs to a group of paintings that the artist embarked on in 1947. With their rounded shapes and distinct silhouettes, they resemble letters of the alphabet suspended within the body of the composition; yet their forms are amorphous enough as to eschew definitive comprehension. These cryptic ciphers are separated by brushy passages of black and white pigment laid down one on top of another resulting in a highly active painterly surface. In his appraisal of this painting, Elderfield notes that de Kooning appears reticent about using too many shapes that resemble recognizable objects and “is content to compose a painting almost entirely with shapes that resemble letters, providing that the letters to not compose words that refer to objects, and actually that are difficult to read as words at all” ("De Kooning’s First Solo Exhibition," in J. Elderfield, ed., de Kooning: a Retrospective, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011, p. 169).
The result, Elderfield continues, is a still-life quality that the critic attributes, in part, to the influence of analytical cubism, something which de Kooning himself has acknowledged. The puffed-up shapes sooner or later do become recognizable as letters that seem to spell out an O, an R, an A, a P and a T, with also the hint of an E and an O. They do equate to a flat painted sign—the artist had studied lettering at the academy in his native Rotterdam, and had worked as a sign painter—something which Elderfield identifies helps to make the painterliness of this particular work all the more conspicuous.
These ‘black and white’ paintings mark a pivotal moment in the artist’s career, as he began an intense period of innovation and experimentation. Of primary interest during this period was his examination of the relationship between surface and depth. Relating back to his interest in cubism, and their fracturing of the planar image to represent three-dimensional objects in a two-dimensional space, the monochromatic palette allowed de Kooning to investigate these dynamics to their greatest potential. It also allowed for maximum instability, while at the same time offering more control in the figure-ground relationship, unaffected as it was by the influence of receding, warm and cool colors. In Orestes, traces of those warm colors can be seen in the lower left quadrant and central portion as passages of soft pinks and warm ochers emerge through fissures in the black and white organic forms. As Thomas Hess points out, de Kooning favored this restrictive palette as it enabled him “to achieve a higher degree of ambiguity—of forms dissolving into their opposites—than ever before” (quoted in H. Gaugh, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1983, p. 27).
Another important factor in the development of these forms was de Kooning’s adoption of commercial enamel (sometimes mixed with artists’ oil paints) as his preferred medium. It has been claimed that this was due to economic need, in that, due to the copious amounts of paint need to produce these new canvases, de Kooning needed to find a cheaper alternative to traditional artists’ oils. Yet others have argued that the quick drying enamels allowed the artist to successfully develop his ‘erasure’ technique by which he would lay down, and then subsequently partially remove, layers of pigment to produce his desired effects: it is no coincidence that the ultimate manifestation of this process is a painting titled Excavation (1950; Art Institute of Chicago).
A mysterious composition filled with unsettling pictorial ambiguity, Orestes, along with other works from this period, also recalls the artist’s notion of the "no-environment," a term which de Kooning used to denote a sense of place within his paintings that was simultaneously void of any concrete details regarding the particular setting. Painted while the artist was still living in New York City, de Kooning’s “no-environments” were meant to convey the same sense of alienation and anonymity that the large, bustling, modern city, with its emphasis on the mass collective, often fostered. “No-environment—the metaphysical and social alienation of man from society and the nightmares of urbanization—have been a preoccupation of modern writers from Marx and Dostoyevsky to Heidegger and Celine,” Hess described. “For de Kooning, however, 'no-environment' is a metaphysical concept with physical materiality—with flesh and cement" (Willem de Kooning, New York, 1959, p. 18).
In order to attain this new, pure and open-ended approach to painting, de Kooning had adopted a novel semi-automatic approach to the way in which he constructed his paintings. It had essentially been the Surrealists' introduction of automatism and chance in their work that had inspired many artists of the New York School to elevate the process of painting to the level of its subject matter, content or style in the first place. In particular Miró's transformation of the objects of life into ambiguous and evocative signs had played a major role in the development of both de Kooning as well as his close friend and mentor, Arshile Gorky's, distorting of forms. Now, refuting the use of abstraction towards the essentially mystical end of transcendence, de Kooning drew on the spontaneity of automatism and on chance configurations as a way of generating paintings that conveyed, through the viscosity of their own medium, the vitality and immediacy of tangible corporeal life. De Kooning achieved this remarkable feat primarily through a conscious and premeditated disruption of his own lyrical and masterly ability with line.
De Kooning’s paintings from this period come with arresting titles, many of which have sparked vigorous debate amongst scholars. In the case of the present work, Oresetes, the origins of this particular title has been much discussed. In Greek mythology, Orestes was the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, who murdered his mother in revenge for her murder of his father. Some scholars have argued that this reflected de Kooning’s own difficult relationship with his mother, but other have rejected this biographical theory. In interviews, Elaine de Kooning recalled that many the of titles for the paintings were only arrived at the time of their 1948 exhibition at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York, when she, de Kooning and Egan came up with them in the hours before the exhibition opened. Elderfield further elucidates that in the exhibition, Orestes was originally listed as merely Painting, indicating that perhaps it was only given its current title by its first owners, John and Ruth Stephan who subsequently acquired it.
The Charles Egan Gallery show was de Kooning’s first solo exhibition. Although also still painting figuratively at this time, the artist chose to focus his exhibition on his new black-and-white abstract paintings. In his review, Clement Greenberg honed in on the noble lineage of these new works: “De Kooning, along with Gorky, Gottlieb, Pollock [Pollock was executing his first ‘drip’ paintings around this period], and several other contemporaries, has refined himself down to black in an effort to change the composition and design of post-cubist painting and introduce more open forms… [Black] and white seem to answer a more advanced phase of sensibility at the moment” (quoted in J. Zilczar, A Way of Living: The Art of Willem de Kooning, 2014, New York, p. 84). While Greenberg placed these new works firmly in the canon of twentieth-century art, another reviewer, Renée Arb, focused on their sheer vitality: “His abstractions with their free energy are the results of months of sketching and alteration, and they reveal the new, self-contained personality. For here, virtuosity is disguised as voluptuousness—the process of painting becomes the end… In the compositions there is a constant tension as space envelopes and then releases these ambiguous forms. Indeed, his subject seems to be that crucial intensity of the creative process itself, which de Kooning has translated into a new and purely pictorial idiom” (quoted in J. Zilcar, op. cit., p.84).
In his review of the Egan show, Greenberg hailed de Kooning as being at the dawn of his career as an abstract painter. The paintings that came out of this crucial period serve as the definitive fulcrum that would launch the rest of his eminent production. For, as the critic Tom Hess recounted, Barnett Newman had once stated of de Kooning’s black-and-white paintings, “When an artist wants to change, when he wants to invent, he goes to black; it is a way of clearing the table—of getting to new ideas” (Willem de Kooning, New York, 1968, p. 50). Indeed, the significance of these paintings and their humble beginnings was not lost on the artist, as de Kooning would keep the two original cans of enamel for the rest of his life—resolving not to lose them as he changed studios. And while he would never return to the predominantly black and white compositional format as his paintings evolved, the ever-present reminder of the paint cans would serve as a symbol for the artist’s own dark genesis.

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