Sara Friedlander, Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art in New York, on a 1982 painting that resulted from a period of renewed energy for the Abstract Expressionist artist, and reflected David Rockefeller's love for ‘the art of his time’
Dutch-born Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) ‘radically transformed his painting style in the final decade of his career,’ says Sara Friedlander, Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s in New York. Yet in many ways, Friedlander says, the 1982 painting Untitled XIX reflects the major themes that appeared again and again in his oeuvre: ‘The relationship between abstraction and figuration; the paring down of forms; reduction of colour; and his continued dialogue with the work of Henri Matisse.’
David Rockefeller acquired Untitled XIX after the death of his wife, Peggy, in 1996. ‘As a boy, I shared some of Father’s scepticism about new and unfamiliar art forms, but my eye nevertheless became increasingly accustomed to them through Mother’s activities,’ he confessed in his memoirs. ‘My interest developed rapidly in later years. In 1948 I had gone on the board of the Museum of Modern Art. As a result, I became exposed on a regular basis to many exciting contemporary works which I increasingly found engaging and challenging.’
Untitled XIX is one of a group of paintings begun in 1981 that de Kooning completed as he neared the end of his eighth decade. In the late 1970s the artist’s health had taken a turn for the worse and, says Friedlander, he was painting only rarely. ‘Yet by 1980 he had stopped drinking,’ she explains, ‘and his wife Elaine was helping him to overcome bouts of depression. In 1981, against all odds, he returned to the canvas, full of renewed energy and enthusiasm.’
The works de Kooning produced were another peak in his career, previous highlights of which had included his ‘Woman’ paintings of the 1950s and the figures in landscapes of the 1970s. The paintings of the early 1980s were immediately lauded by critics: in 1982, sister paintings of Untitled XIX were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.
‘Lately I've been thinking it would be nice to be influenced by Matisse,’ de Kooning said. ‘I mean, he’s so light-hearted’
In their free-flowing forms and use of space, the canvases evoke Henri Matisse’s revolutionary ‘Cut-Outs’, completed by the French artist at a similarly advanced age. De Kooning himself made this link explicit in comments he made in 1980: ‘Lately I’ve been thinking that it would be nice to be influenced by Matisse,’ he said. ‘I mean, he’s so light-hearted.’
To create Untitled XIX, de Kooning experimented with a technique in which he abandoned the traditional upright perspective of the canvas. Instead, he continuously rotated each painting by 90 degrees until it was complete. ‘He would start in the upper right-hand corner, for example, and have his studio assistant rotate the work so he could begin another part of the canvas,’ Friedlander explains.
‘He started working with a taper’s knife — the flat-bladed tool used in drywall construction — to stretch the paint across the canvas with fluid movements, achieving an almost calligraphic effect,’ adds the specialist. ‘The result is a surface that retains the sensuousness of his characteristic gesture, yet the brushstrokes are filled with an unexpected lightness and transparency and a real sense of freedom.’
When Friedlander first encountered Untitled XIX, she recalls, it was displayed at Christie’s Rockefeller Center galleries alongside Matisse’s Odalisque couchée aux magnolias from 1923. ‘David was of course a great collector of Impressionist and Modern paintings,’ she continues, ‘but he also loved the art of his time. It’s an amazing connection because here you have de Kooning at the end of his life revisiting Matisse, and David towards the end of his collecting journey looking at such a contemporary painting.’