WILLEM DE KOONING (1904-1997)
WILLEM DE KOONING (1904-1997)
WILLEM DE KOONING (1904-1997)
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WILLEM DE KOONING (1904-1997)
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WILLEM DE KOONING (1904-1997)

Untitled III

Details
WILLEM DE KOONING (1904-1997)
Untitled III
signed ‘de Kooning’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
70 x 80 in. (177.8 x 203.2 cm.)
Painted circa 1978.
Provenance
Willem de Kooning Family Collection, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2014
Literature
T. Hess, "In de Kooning's Studio," Vogue, April 1978, pp. 234-235 (studio view illustrated).
H. Butler and T. Greenfield-Sanders, “Downtown in the Fifties, Horizon 24”, no. 6, June 1981, p. 16 (illustrated).
P. Sollers, de Kooning, Vite, Paris, 1988, vol. I, p. 84, no. 102 (illustrated, n.p. in vol. II).
R. Suckale, Masterpieces of Western Art: A History of Art in 900 Individual Studies from the Gothic to the Present Day Part 1, Cologne, 2002, p. 631 (illustrated).
Exhibited
London, Royal Academy of Arts, A New Spirit in Painting, January-March 1981, p. 220, no. 85 (illustrated).
East Hampton, Guild Hall, Willem de Kooning Works From 1951-1981, 1981, p. 21 and 37, no. 37 (illustrated).
Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; East Hampton, Guild Hall Museum, Five Distinguished Alumni: The W.P.A. Federal Art Project, January-February 1982, no. 8 (illustrated).
Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Expressive Malerie nach Picasso, October-December 1983.
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, La Grande Parade: Highlights in Painting after 1940, December 1984-April 1985.
Special notice

On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.

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Vanessa Fusco
Vanessa Fusco Head of 20th Century Evening Sale, Head of Impressionist and Modern Art

Lot Essay

Unquestionably one of the driving forces behind twentieth-century postwar painting, Willem de Kooning was crucial to the formation and success of Abstract Expressionism. His canvases famously diverged from the nonrepresentational compositions of his colleagues such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, favoring instead fleshy forms that merged paint and structure beneath emphatically powerful gestures. The late 1970s were an especially productive time for the artist, and Untitled III is a highly accomplished example from this period. de Kooning continued to evolve as a painter, pushing color and physical media to the extreme edges of the frame as if to challenge the very support to which they were bound. Such innovations led critic David Sylvester to declare 1977 the artist’s annus mirabilis after seeing a number of large-scale works at the Xavier Fourcade gallery in New York. He noted, “the paintings…with their massively congested, luminous color, their contrasts between flowing and broken forms, attain at their best a total painterliness in which marks and image coalesce completely and every inch of the canvas quivers with teeming energy” (D. Sylvester, quoted in J. Elderfield, de Kooning: a Retrospective, New York, 2011, p. 430).

In Untitled III, the fields of pigment flow out across the picture plane, suggesting a barely contained energy surging directly from the artist’s hand onto the surface of canvas. This kinetic motion captured on the canvas was actually the result of a laborious process of paint application. Ribbons of color were laid down, then the canvas was turned ninety degrees before more paint was applied. Next the surface would be scraped, sanded, and still more paint applied, all executed with intense rumination about where the picture would end up and how to preserve its immediacy. “How much time there was concentrating and looking,” the artist’s friend Emilie Kilgore recalled. “Sitting in that chair! Maybe having a cigarette. But still just looking with such intensity. And then getting up and walking over…still with his eye on the painting and then Kershewwww! Everything leading up to it was so long and then he got there and it was always pretty quick” (E. Kilgore, quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swan, De Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2005, pp. 542-543).

De Kooning’s early career was famously marked by the shocking frontality of the works like Woman I (1950-52, Museum of Modern Art, New York) and the confluence of representative figures with gestural abstraction. Later his paintings began to merge figure and the landscape, and Untitled III is awash with verdant hues and fleshy tones amidst frantic drips and splashes. The predominance of blue in the present work is especially striking given de Kooning’s bucolic surroundings in Springs, Long Island—a small hamlet towards the eastern New York’s Long Island that sticks out into the North Atlantic a couple of hours east of New York City. The artist clears a path through dense pools of blue for light to explode through ethereal washes of pale white and blue. In the central band, fiery red elements pierce the upper calm, and mottled passages of blue, green, yellow, and pink temper their energy allowing a distinct sense of visual equilibrium. By keeping the background colors more tame and dispersed between drifts of marbled white, de Kooning keeps the composition from becoming jumbled and instead evokes the virtuosic gestural quality for which he is known. Art historian and close friend of the artist, Thomas B. Hess, described the process behind paintings like Untitled III after visiting de Kooning’s studio in 1978, noting, “[he] mixes his colors in glass salad bowls, with safflower oil and water emulsified by a little kerosene, and beats them to a fluffy consistency. The colors are applied to stretched canvases with three-inch house-painter’s brushes—the kind you buy in any hardware store—and with long-handled liners that used to be manufactured for scenery and display artists and now are special-ordered from the factory. De Kooning is amused by this custom-tailored detail in his methodology. He is even more eloquent about the house-painter’s brushes; he likes them, he says, old, dirty, frayed, doddering. Neatly ranged on his palette, the brushes remind you of Depression-days bread-lines. Poignant. Hapless. And, in the artist’s small, muscular hand, supremely efficient” (T. Hess, “In De Kooning’s Studio” Vogue, New York, April 1978, p. 236-239). As interested in investigating the physical materials and their innate abilities as he was in describing a sensation or scene, de Kooning bent even the most pedestrian of supplies to his will.

De Kooning’s work from the last years of the 1970s is marked by an affinity for intentional lightness and open, loose composition. Though not a direct representation of an actual locale, the surface of Untitled III is inspired by the light of the North Atlantic beaming back from the waters outside his home in Springs. There the artist endeavored to free himself from both the urban and artworld claustrophobia of New York that he had escaped in 1963. “[…] when I came here I made the color of sand—a big pot of paint that was the color of sand. 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.” (W. de Kooning, quoted in H. Rosenberg, “Interview with Willem de Kooning,” ARTnews 71, September 1972, p. 58-59). By the late 1970s, when he began realizing works like the present example, the painter had hit upon a sweet spot in this painterly translation of his natural surroundings. Expanding on, and evolving from the exhilarating oeuvre that made him an arbiter of Abstract Expressionism in the ‘50s, de Kooning never stopped to create delineations in his practice. Rather, he pushed forward and built upon the past with a tireless vigor, a practice that art historian and curator Diane Waldman claimed 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). Though there are certain discernible groupings throughout his career, such as the Woman paintings, landscapes, and the ‘pastorals’, each new turn is inextricably linked to the last, building up a complex strata of personal iconography not dissimilar to the layers of paint methodically applied to the artist’s captivating canvases.

Though ensconced in his own painterly world of East Hampton, de Kooning was a consummate scholar and built upon the achievements of his forebearers. "I've always been crazy about [Chaim] Soutine—all of his paintings," de Kooning remarked in 1977 about his indebtedness to the Belarusian-born French Expressionist. "Maybe it's the lushness of the paint. He builds up a surface that looks like a material, like a substance. There's a kind of transfiguration, ...a certain fleshiness, in his work. [...] I remember when I first saw the Soutines in the Barnes Collection. [...] The Matisses had a light of their own, but the Soutines had a glow that came from within the paintings—it was another kind of light" (D. Sylvester, About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-1996, London, 2001, p. 338). Works like Soutine’s Winding Road, Near Gréolières (c. 1920-21) would have certainly been in the Barnes Collection when de Kooning visited, and the luscious, thick application of paint Soutine used to render a swirling, liquid landscape that threatens to give way to total abstraction. Nowhere is this connection more palpable than in works like Untitled III where the artist builds and shapes a scene on the verge of representation. However, instead of limiting himself to vertical constructions of sea, sky, and land, de Kooning switched off the law of gravity so that all of the elements were free to collide in space. As he keenly noted, “I try to free myself from the notion of top and bottom, left and right, from realism. Everything should float” (Daniel Frasnay, The Artist's World (New York: The Viking Press, 1969), 221-222, 233). This all-over composition, so championed by Modernist critics like Harold Rosenberg, linked de Kooning to the other painters in the New York School. Never working entirely separate from the outside world, the collective fervor of the roiling mid-century American art world left its mark on the artist’s legacy as much as he influenced the successors of later years.

Although on the surface de Kooning’s painterly forms seem a radical departure from the conventional aesthetics of art history, his subjects actually skew more traditionally to scenes of figures or landscapes. These two interests combined in potent archetypes like Woman in Landscape III (1968) and others of that ilk as the painter adeptly married body with locale. For example, the undulating peach and tan of works like Two Figures in a Landscape (1967) draws upon the breakthroughs wrought in the artist’s iconic Woman I (1950-52) by further abstracting the human body into planes of pigment. Known for this groundbreaking take on figural abstraction, de Kooning once professed that “Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented,” (W. de Kooning, quoted in “The Renaissance and Order,” in T. Hess, Willem de Kooning, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1968, p. 142). Expanding on these previous forays while working in his studio throughout the 1970s, the artist pressed the body and landscape so neatly together that neither readily resembled their original physical forms. Instead, he became entranced by the idea of portraying moments, experiences, and a tangible present-ness. “It came, with the artist in his mid-seventies, as the climax of a period in which the paintings [...] with their massively congested, deeply luminous color, their contrasts between flowing and broken forms, attain at their best a total painterliness in which marks and image coalesce completely and every inch of the canvas quivers with teeming energy,” David Sylvester wrote in this regard. “They belong with the paintings made at the same age by artists such as Monet and Renoir and Bonnard and, of course, Titian. The paint is freely, loosely, messily handled, sometimes with fingers rather than a brush or knife. [...] De Kooning’s paintings of the 70s are an annihilation of distance. These paintings are crystallizations of the experience and amazement of having body and mind dissolve into another who is all delight.” (D. Sylvester, “Flesh was the Reason” in Willem de Kooning Paintings, op. cit., p. 30). Works like Untitled III are frontal and immediate. The physical presence of the work acts in tandem with its absorptive qualities, creating a viable link between artist and viewer. These frozen moments, or evidence of an event, is what lead Rosenberg to champion artists like de Kooning early on under the banner of Action Painting.

Thus, Untitled III is the climax of a grand marriage. His main subjects: figures and landscapes, came together at last into a canvas rife with energy drawn straight from the world around him. It stepped beyond recognizable representation in favor of pure vivacity. “De Kooning redefined the pastoral tradition in an original way,” his biographers acutely surmised. “He found a means, at last, to unite the figure and the landscape into an ideal image that he could believe in. … He presented the figures in the landscape--rather than from without. He was not the outsider who surveys the ideal scene from afar. He had passed through the looking glass; he created, as he put it, ‘a feeling of being on the other side of nature’” (M. Stevens and A. Swan, op. cit., p. 571). Much like his Impressionist predecessor Monet, tucked away in the gardens at Giverny, de Kooning harnessed the natural world around Springs and translated it through his collection of pigment mixtures and hoary brushes. "I wanted to get in touch with nature," the artist intoned about this period "Not painting scenes from nature, but to get a feeling of that light that was very appealing to me, here particularly. I was always very much interested in water" (W. de Kooning, quoted in H. Rosenberg, op. cit.). Fixating on this representation of a feeling, the artist dove deeper and deeper into his meticulous process in an effort to materialize the intangible experience in color and form.

As such, Willem de Kooning’s paintings from this crucial period were as topographical as they were geographical. The artist compresses the traditional notion of perspective into an aspect which appears as if viewed from above, thereby pushing his painterly dance to the fore. “De Kooning’s paintings of the 70s are an annihilation of distance,” David Sylvester said of these works (Ibid.). This amalgamation was the culmination of decades of painterly practice, a visceral celebration of all that makes painting the premier art form. By coalescing color, form, abstraction and figuration into one pulsating canvas, de Kooning demonstrates why he has come to be celebrated as one of the most inventive painters of the twentieth-century. “When I moved into this house,” he said in 1972 of his move to Springs, “everything seemed self-evident… The space, the light, the trees—I just accepted it without thinking about it much. Now I look around with new eyes. I think it’s all a kind of miracle” (W. de Kooning, quoted by J. Elderfield, ibid, p. 419).
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