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Ivan & Genevieve Reitman: A Life in Pictures

Untitled III

Untitled III
signed 'de Kooning' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
80 x 70 in. (203.2 x 177.8 cm.)
Painted in 1984.
Pace Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1991
E. Lieber, Willem de Kooning: Reflections in the Studio, New York, 2000, pp. 64-65 (illustrated).
New York, Xavier Fourcade, Inc., Willem de Kooning: New Paintings, Sculptures, and Drawings, May-June 1984.
New York, Xavier Fourcade, Inc., Willem de Kooning: New Paintings, 1984-1985, October-November 1985, pp. 5-6 (illustrated).
New York, Pace Gallery, Willem de Kooning / Jean Dubuffet: The Late Works, September-October 1993, n.p., pl. 2 (illustrated).

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Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Proving his ability to adapt and innovate even toward the end of his storied career, Willem de Kooning continued to probe the boundaries of painting long after he was canonized in the annals of art history. Never feeling it necessary to maintain one particular style or rest on his laurels, his dynamic oeuvre evolved and grew throughout the eight decades he was working. His is a lasting testament to how much a painter can explore the divide between the figurative world and pure abstraction. Untitled III is a highly sophisticated example of de Kooning’s work from the 1980s and illustrates his reflective journey from the overwhelming visual complexity of his first forays into Abstract Expressionism to a more open, airy space. As a founder of that uniquely American movement and its New York constituency, his was a practice forged in the fires of change and revolutionary ideas. In his later years, he loosened the reins ever so slightly and began a new conversation within the composition. “Fewer components jostle for attention [in this body of work]," New York Times art critic Phyllis Braff wrote in 1994. “Sensations of bumping, layering and the piling on of experiences are all lessened. Instead, ribbons of color undulate and spread out, introducing a thoroughly engaging lyricism” (P. Braff, “A Hometown Tribute to de Kooning at 90,” The New York Times, Sunday, July 3, 1994, p. 13). This new visual direction was not wholly tangential as it followed the gradual progression visible throughout de Kooning’s timeline. Alluding to the curvaceous figures of his breakthrough Women series but eschewing the roughly aggressive handling of paint, these later canvases dispensed with direct representation in favor of a calm, flowing dialogue between the artist and his practice.

In the early part of the 1980s, de Kooning began to infuse his canvases with a particularly lyrical quality that found its staying power in the curvature and warmth of his lines. The thick, impasto shapes of his previous series were softened and smoothed into fluttering arabesques of calligraphic strokes. Emanating an airy lightness found only in these later ‘ribbon’ paintings, Untitled III is a study of the interactions between fluid lines and amorphous fields of color. Reducing his palette to just blue, red, black, and white, de Kooning exhibits an enormous restraint that is both at odds and in direct conversation with his years of vigorous paint application. The white ground is a dominant force as it sets the stage for harmonious interactions between undulating areas of red and the sweeping gestures of his brush. To the right side, more solid shapes appear, their edges lined with blue. These same lines detach from their anchors and drift like silk on the wind into the upper reaches of the painting where they mingle and twist with free-floating shapes. It is hard not to make connections between these late paintings and the works of Henri Matisse, in particular the French master’s lyrical paintings such as The Dance (1909, Museum of Modern Art, New York). There is a similar ability to coax movement and grace out of even the simplest line in the Fauvist painter’s enthralling works that de Kooning took to in his later years. Speaking to this idea in 1980, de Kooning commented, “Lately I’ve been thinking, that it would be nice to be influenced by Matisse. I mean he’s so lighthearted. I have a book about how old he was and how he cut out colored patterns and he made it so joyous. I would like to do that—not like him, but joyous, more or less” (W. de Kooning, quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swan, De Kooning: An American Master, 2004, p. 589).

Prior to his ribbon paintings, the artist had been edging progressively closer toward less heavily worked surfaces that still retained the same intensity and visual intrigue he had become known for. In the 1970s, a more linear quality emerged from de Kooning’s multi-colored canvases. As with many of his most influential paintings, these abstractions were catalyzed by the artist’s surroundings. Looking upon the interplay of light and water enveloping him in the idyllic setting of northern Long Island, his early interest in the figure and the urban environment was consumed by a pastoral vision only he could have conjured. Combining this with a presiding interest in the works of artists like Chaïm Soutine, he began to develop an interplay of near-representational compositions that evoke the organic forms of land and nature but never fully materialize. Drawing upon this, David Sylvester noted, "Soutine, in the landscapes of his Céret period, had used broad strokes of thick, juicy paint to put flesh on the bones of analytical cubist compositions, or of the Cézannes that had inspired these. And there is no doubt that those paintings had a crucial influence on de Kooning" (D. Sylvester, About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-1996, London, 2001, p. 338). It is from between these natural forms that white spaces began to emerge and separate the painted areas into lines and organic shapes. Like reflections in the ripples of the waters he so frequently observed, they brought a breath and space to his work that had not been seen previously.

At the time that Untitled III was painted, the artist was taking stock of his years and thinking about his triumphs and missteps along the way. However, rather than bask in the glory of his accomplishments or become mired in regret, he resurrected ideas and paid tribute to his extraordinary journey through a tumultuous century. “Instead of just looking back in reverie to his past, as happens so frequently in old age, he transformed looking back into looking forward,” Klaus Kertess again explained (K. Kertess, “Further Reflection,” in Willem de Kooning: The Last Beginning, exh. cat., New York, 2007, p. 18). Thinking about his formative years, he surveyed the many twists of his life and thought about the various artists and individuals he had crossed paths with on the way. Among them, his late colleague Arshile Gorky figured prominently in de Kooning’s mind. The two were founding members of the American school of abstraction before the former’s untimely death in 1948. Reminiscing about his friend many years later, the feelings of nostalgia that may have been strengthened by the artist’s visit to Gorky’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1983. Untitled III elaborates on and draws from the powerful calligraphic lines and biomorphic forms of the Armenian-American painter, connecting the two men once again over the span of time. “The resulting radiant freshness is far removed from the introspection and/or desperation which is often a feature of the late work of great artists. That famed anxiety which has proven a touchstone of, indeed almost driving force behind, so much of de Kooning’s art has, at least momentarily, been overlaid with something approaching lyricism.” (J. Zilczer, A Way of Living: The Art of Willem de Kooning, New York, 2014, p. 242). Instead of looking back with grief of disappointment, works like Untitled III seem to signal de Kooning entering a more contemplative, accepting era in his final years.

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