Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
Property from the Collection of Kenneth and Susan Kaiserman
Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)


Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
signed 'de Kooning' (lower right); signed again 'de Kooning' (on the reverse)
oil on paper laid down on canvas
41 3/8 x 30 1/8 in. (105 x 76.5 cm.)
Painted in 1974.
Xavier Fourcade, Inc., New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1978
London, Gimpel Fils Ltd. and Zurich, Gimpel & Hanover, Willem de KooningRecent Paintings, July-October 1976.
Edinburgh, Fruit Market Gallery and London, Serpentine Gallery, The Sculptures of de Kooning, with related Paintings, Drawings and Lithographs, October 1977-January 1978, no. 34.

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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

The exuberant animation of Willem de Kooning’s lyrical painterly lines in Untitled brings to mind the artist’s luxuriance in gestural markings that lie at the heart of his visual vocabulary. Elaborating on his extraordinary Woman series of earlier decades, one sees an expansive freedom in design and color that carries into this work from 1974, where propulsive swaths of reds, pinks, and flesh tones electrify the surface. Accent jewel-like tones of yellow, green, and blue anchor three corners against an avalanche of flowing white. It’s as if color has overtaken and exploded an image of a human form to become the central vehicle of expression for the artist, igniting flames of luminosity that surge across the canvas. Comparing the earlier Woman Sag Harbor, 1964, which de Kooning painted on wood from his Doors series, with the present work, we see the artist parlaying remnants of human form even as he embraces alternative surfaces in stunningly explosive abstraction. But whether depicting the figure or subsuming figuration into pure abstraction, de Kooning’s pictorial surface primarily renders hue and texture, exuding as it does a strong dramatic form that confronts the viewer in a blaze of optical and tactile pleasure.

Untitled belongs to a period of brilliant achievement in which we see a movement away from the central compositional arrangement as such. Visual interest darts around the picture plane, tracing shifting vectors that splay outward from the center to corners. There are traces of slightly recessive flesh tones and reds that pop into the field of vision, and whites—evident in the ground color and mixed with pigment—that offer islands of calming intervals. This roiling activation of the surface seems to create an almost chaotic field, where light is captured and released in shallow space and made to illuminate a simmering rectangular plane. Indeed, light per se becomes a thematic in paintings from the 1970s. The comment to critic Harold Rosenberg from 1972—“I wanted to get back to a feeling of light in painting…to get a feeling of that light….”—describes what de Kooning seems to have rendered in Untitled, a study in luminescence and form, touched with body and landscape colors, the greens of trees and grass, the blues of sky and sea, the flesh tones of an exploded figure. Having moved to The Springs, East Hampton, in 1961, de Kooning seemed to transcribe the human form into the totalizing atmosphere of this light-infused environment. “When I came here I made the color… of grey-green grass, the beach grass, and the ocean. ...Indescribable tones, almost. I started working with them and insisted that they would give me the kind of light I wanted” (H. Rosenberg, “Interview with Willem de Kooning,” ARTnews 71, September 1972, p. 58).

This sense of the abstracted body in landscape, however, comes to the fore primarily because the orientation of the picture seems fluid. As de Kooning said, “I try to free myself from the notion of top and bottom, left and right, from realism! Everything should float” (M. Prather, in Willem de Kooning: Paintings, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1994, p. 174). And while this fluctuation between figuration and abstraction persisted throughout his career, the manner with which de Kooning approached his canvas emphasized the abstract nature of his project. As early as the 1950s and certainly into the 1980s, de Kooning’s artistic practice involved campaigns with the brush from all sides. He would turn the canvas during and even after the painting was completed: “De Kooning’s is a slippery universe made of expanding numbers of indications and changing points of view – a finished painting is turned upside-down at the last moment…” (T. B. Hess, Willem de Kooning, exh. cat., New York, 1968, note 34, p. 14).

Further fluidity lies in the nature of Untitled’s colors, which partake of one another, oscillating between warmth and coolness, from reds that lean into orange juxtaposed with vermilion that moves into blue. Flesh tones are streaked these hues, including earth tones as much to emphasize the amorphous quality of his surface as to keep such conflations at bay. Further, as critic Thomas B. Hess wrote in the early 1970s, de Kooning never abandoned traditional techniques, such as impasto and modeling. “For de Kooning, the urge is to include everything, to give nothing up, even if it means working in a turmoil of contradictions…a turmoil of contradictions is his favorite medium” (T B. Hess, de Kooning: Recent Paintings, 1972, p. 20).

The 1970s were a time of enormous reinvention for de Kooning, taking elements from his earlier work—as he once remarked, “My paintings come more from other paintings” (W. de Kooning and H. Rosenberg, “Interview with Willem de Kooning,” Art News September 1972, rpt. in S. Yard, Willem de Kooning: Works, Writings, and Interviews, Barcelona, p. 149)—while at the same time developing a new style that seemed for all its resonance with the past, to break into new territory. Untitled is an example of this duel creative development. Both a traditionalist in terms of European technique and composition and a thoroughgoing leader of the American abstract avant-garde, de Kooning kept in constant balance the interpenetration of drawing and painting. After a period of making sculpture and working in printing that began in 1969 and ended the year of the present work, 1974, de Kooning emerged with an entirely new relationship to painting, one that opened up the pictorial surface to an abstraction rich in texture and design. Noting the complexity of de Kooning’s development, art historian and curator Diane Waldman, claimed for de Kooning a “concurrent” evolution, one that prevents the “separation of his oeuvre into neat stylistic categories…of abstract and representational” (D. Waldman, Willem de Kooning in East Hampton, New York, 1978, p.11). It is as if, as artist Mark Rothko stated, the artist needed to “breathe and stretch his arms again” (M. Rothko, “The Romantics Were Prompted,” Possibilities I, Winter 1947/48: 84).

De Kooning’s technique in Untitled ranges not far from earlier processes. Painting only in daylight, de Kooning thins his oil paint with water, binding his pigments with kerosene, safflower oil, or mayonnaise. Using house paint brushes, spatulas and knives, a tactility emerges that speaks to the freedom and spontaneity of his repeated campaigns, resulting in a planar surface molded into ridges and crevices that leave an index of the artist’s hand. Like late Monet, reflected light and color catalyze the curvilinear shapes such that the surface is activated by the artist’s broad brushstroke, liberating contour, color and light, and rendering manipulations of material form as much as planar image. Untitled is that rare work in the history of Western art that moves between representation into abstraction with the buoyancy and luminosity of a master at work.

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