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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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Property of an Important Collection
WILLEM DE KOONING (1904-1997)

Untitled

Details
WILLEM DE KOONING (1904-1997)
Untitled
signed 'de Kooning' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
70 x 80 in. (177.8 x 203.2 cm.)
Painted in 1985.
Provenance
Willem de Kooning Foundation, New York
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2014
Literature
de Kooning: A Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2011, p. 474, fig. 4 (illustrated).
Exhibited
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Willem de Kooning Ten Paintings 1983-1985, November-December 2013, p. 55 (illustrated).
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Brought to you by

Vanessa Fusco
Vanessa Fusco Head of Department, Impressionist & Modern Art, New York

Lot Essay

Painted in 1985, Willem de Kooning’s Untitled is a vivacious, large-scale example of his late style, brimming with floating ribbons of color that flicker and dance across a luminous white background. Now in his eighties, de Kooning was painting some of his most lyrical and elegant paintings yet. “I am becoming freer,” he said. “I think you can do miracles with what you have if you accept it” (W. de Kooning, quoted in M. Stephens and A. Swann, De Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2005, p. 603). This era witnessed a stripping away of extraneous materials, leaving only two primary colors—red and blue—set against glowing, almost incandescent, white grounds. Untitled attests to these lean but brilliant late paintings, featuring a host of colorful ribbon-forms, some of which nestle alongside each other, while others roam free, only to fold in on themselves, suggesting the curvature of womanly bodies and flesh.

De Kooning orchestrates a powerful, late-in-life masterpiece in Untitled, which bustles with dancing lines and evokes the airy and elegant joie-de-vivre of this late, great series. With a calm hand, the artist paints lean blue lines, which converge in peaks and tapered points along the upper edge, conjuring up icy vistas and cold mountain snow. Throughout the main register, these crisp blue ribbon-forms are then paired with thicker, denser red ones. These nestle alongside the blue, varying in thickness and width, at times breaking off from a single line to form two thinner ones (in one case, a line which begins its life as red ends up turning blue as it arcs and whips around). These color ribbons have a potent, graphic “snap” when viewed against the optical white background. The artist has given some of them several applications of paint, making them wider, darker, and more emphatic. He has also used the palette knife to scrape down parts of the surface, rendering the painting’s “skin” light and airy. Subtle pink passages linger beneath the white surface, barely perceptible at first, but adding a sensual warmth to the otherwise cool white tones. Overall, the painting feels on the cusp of movement, ready to fold and bend upon itself at any minute.

At this point in his career, de Kooning found relief and joy in painting. Waking at dawn, he was usually at his easel by eight-o’clock in the morning. He painted on a large scale, working primarily on canvases in two sizes—70 x 80 inches and 77 x 88 inches. New Bocour acrylic paints were arranged on his glass table, but he preferred a limited palette of just two primary colors, red and blue, in most cases. These he used freely, straight from the tube. In Untitled, the purity of their unmodulated application imparts a kind of dazzling electricity to the painting. Rather than mixing the paints or thinning them down with linseed oil as he had done in the 1970s, de Kooning now preferred simplicity. 1985 would prove to be his most productive in many years. The New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman described this shift in the artist’s output: “The heavy impasto and foamy bliss in his 70's paintings gave way to sanded and scraped surfaces, rainbows of color yielding to thin ribbons twisting on bare backgrounds. You can still see the lyrical, seemingly effortless graphic virtuosity in some of the airy forms that loop and spin across these canvases” (M. Kimmelman, “The Lives They Lived; Life is Short, Art is Long,” The New York Times, January 4, 1998, Section 6, p. 19).

De Kooning was in a retrospective mood in these final years, thinking back over his life’s work and yet continuing to make new developments. Arranged within his light-filled studio, his earlier paintings gathered around him, he would reference his own work but also the artists he greatly admired. Between 1983 and 1985, de Kooning was grappling, in particular, with the great French Modernists, especially Henri Matisse (although Ingres, Rubens and Mondrian were on his mind as well). According to his assistant at the time, Tom Ferrara, Matisse was the artist he chose to guide him through this late-in-life development. He was particularly interested in the “floating quality” of Matisse’s paintings, particularly in Dance (1) (1909; Museum of Modern Art, New York). ”He admired the graphic simplicity of La Danse, which he had often seen in the Museum of Modern Art, and he loved the spirit of the cutouts,” Ferrara recalled. “Lately I’ve been thinking,” de Kooning said in 1980,” “that it would be nice to be influenced by Matisse. […] I have a book about how he was old and he cut out colored patterns and he made it so joyous. I would like to do that too…” (T. Ferrara and W. de Kooning, quoted in M. Stephens and A. Swann, op. cit., p. 589).

Untitled of 1985 occupies an important place within de Kooning’s last cycle of paintings. In 2013, the esteemed curator John Elderfield, selected Untitled from the de Kooning Foundation’s prodigious holdings for an exhibit dedicated to this period – an exhibit consisting of only ten paintings from 1983 to 1985 (a year earlier, Elderfield had illustrated Untitled in his catalogue for his de Kooning retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, EW York). Writing in 2013, Elderfield compared the curving, organic forms in Untitled to the large tangle of underbrush near de Kooning’s studio at Springs, on Long Island. He describes the “undulating, organic motion” at work, “as if looking over and across an entangled bank." Elderfield pays close attention to the artist’s organic forms and his limited palette—consisting predominantly of red and blue instead of shades of vegetable green, Elderfield drew similarities with Mondrian. “Unlike Mondrian,” Elderfield wrote, “de Kooning sets vegetable form against mineral color, forms growing from the earth against the colors of air, water and fire. […] This liberation of the organic from the naturalistic opens it to human associations—here, perhaps to draped bodies—but more importantly, frees it from any necessary allusive function at all.” Ending with a quote by the painter Bridget Riley, he summarized, “Nature is not landscape, but the dynamism of visual forces—an event rather than an appearance” (J. Elderfield, with quote by Bidget Riley, in “Ten Paintings, Ten Themes,” in Willem de Kooning: Ten Paintings, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2013, p. 57).

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