Coaxing each individual brush mark to blend, merge or overflow in this seemingly endless and fluid interaction of color and form, Willem de Kooning's Untitled XXXI maintains an immediate and spontaneous energy, signaling the artists celebrated return to painting. Exhibiting the self-evident revelry that poured from its creator, de Kooning's canvases from the mid-1970s are among his most recognized bodies of work, characterized by prominent critic David Sylvester as, a year that was possibly, no less than 1948, say, theannus mirabilisof de Koonings career (D. Sylvester, "Art: When body, mind and paint dissolve," in The Independent, London, 15 February 1995). Further applauding de Koonings triumphal return to the art world, Thomas Hess asserted, "Painting is not dead; Willem de Kooning's new paintings are stronger than ever. His new works have a solemn, weighty exuberance. He draws like an angel, and his strange, realist colors (grass, ocean, sky, flesh) are applied to canvas with a sure touch that puts him in a class with the old masters" (T. Hess, quoted in J. Elderfield, de Kooning: A Retrospective, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011, p. 399).
With its magnificently textured surface, and sumptuous collisions of colors, Untitled XXXI presents a surface of endless fascinations ripe with subtle illusions to the mercurial glow of the water and the sinuous pinky flesh of the female figure. Echoing John Russell's spirited observation in The New York Times following the artist's 1976 exhibition at Xavier Fourcade Gallery that, "Some of the most memorable marks ever made with paint on canvas have been made at one time or another by Willem de Kooning, these paintings of the mid-1970s form the culmination of much that de Kooning had attempted in the past but never resolved" (J. Russell, ibid.)
When he had first moved to Springs on Long Island, de Kooning had enjoyed the unique landscape of the area, which in many ways had already begun to inform his work. Now in the mid-1970s he became increasingly preoccupied with his immediate environment, its light and topography as well as, in particular, the wateriness of the landscape around Louse Point where he would often cycle. When I moved into this house de Kooning observed in 1976, 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 its all a kind of a miracle (W. de Kooning, quoted in M. Prather, Willem de Kooning Paintings, exh. cat. Washington. D.C. 1994, p. 197).
At Louse Point de Kooning would spend hours observing the water and its effects. He became captivated not only by its shimmering surface, but also its liquid ability to reflect and merge itself with the imagery of the land, sky and figures in a constantly shifting abstract surface of color and form. It was this mercurial effect that de Kooning began to emulate in his paintings attempting to translate it into the equally fluid but more materially substantial and plastic medium of paint. A continuation of a series of paintings loosely based on the theme of the figure in the landscape, from the 1960s, in which de Kooning internalized the outer scene as if it were both a picture of the inner experience of the landscape by the figure situated in it and a record of such interaction, de Kooning now began to create works that suggested a totality of expression.
The beaches, marshes, scrub oaks and potato fields of Springs, East Hampton and Montauk, and the image of woman are still very much the basis of these new canvases, Diane Waldman described in the first museum exhibition dedicated to de Kooning's East Hampton paintings at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. "But de Kooning has wrestled from his environment elements of coolness and warmth and sunlight and has made the tangible forms of figure and landscape submit to them, so that they appear almost as after images. Atmosphere fuses with and transfigures form. De Kooning's preoccupation in these recent paintings with the sensations and reflections of color and light may be compared to the late Monet. Since 1975 he has moved from the specific to the general, from concentration on particular areas to a more even articulation of the surface, away from shaping and placing colors and contours so that they resemble identifiable parts of the human anatomy or nature.Color may or may not suggest a figure, the grass of the sky; freed from depiction, liberated from the shape and contour it has a more random quality than in any other of de Kooning's canvases. But like everything else he has touched, it is far from random, but is subject to his masterful control" (D. Waldman, Willem de Kooning in East Hampton, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1978).
Mixing the precise color he required in a series of small individual bowls laid out on vast glass-top tables that he also used as palettes, de Kooning sought to create the exact tones he required with the precision and patience of a scientist. First, he worked painstakingly on the ground of the painting, priming it with successive layers of white so that its support surface gained a luminescence. Then, as he recalled, "I started working with (indescribable tones) and insisted that they would give me the kind of light I wanted. One was lighting up the grass. That became that kind of green. One was lighting up the water. That became that grey. Then I got a few more colors, because someone might be there, or a rowboat, or something happening, I did very well with that. I got into painting in the atmosphere I wanted to be in. It was like reflections of light. I reflected upon the reflections in the water, like the fishermen do. They stand there fishing. They seldom catch any fish, but they like to be by themselves for an hour. And I do that almost every day...Ive done it for years. (Like) the water gazers in the beginning of Moby Dick. When Ishmael felt desperate and didnt know what to do and went to Battery Place. Thats what I do. There is something about being in touch with the sea that makes me feel good. Thats where most of my paintings come from even when I made them in New York" (W. de Kooning, quoted in ibid., p. 27).
Although often completely abstract, hints of natural or figurative forms sometimes emerge in these paintings, like electric glimpses or fleeting visual moments that suggest the real world of nature and objects and also the path of the painterly process and the continual passing of time. Emulating the continuous flux of the natural world and enthralled by the new fluid freedom he had discovered in these looser, freer but also more complex works, de Kooning remarked that he had the feeling of being on the other side of nature. Everything existed in a continuous flow of activity with forms emerging and slipping back into the fluid logic of the painting as a whole. With regard to the female figure that had often materialized with such vigor in so many of his earlier landscape paintings, de Kooning now found that "I could sustain the figure all the time because it could change all the time. She could get almost upside down, or not be there, or come back again, she could be any size" (W. de Kooning, quoted by M. Stevens and A. Swan, De Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2005, p. 563).
This new series of paintings emerged partly because de Kooning let go and opened up to his prodigious painterly instincts. They emerged from the natural fluidity of de Kooning's art and his celebrated slipping--glimpse-like--observation of life's phenomena as watery reflections on the retina, but they were also rooted in a search for a new light. De Kooning believed that every great artist had their own unique sense of light that radiated through their work. It applied, he said, to artists like Lger and Braque, just as much as to his personal favorites Matisse and Soutine. Soutine, he said, built up a surface with his paint "that looks like 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. In one room there were two long walls, one all Matisse and the other, all Soutine-- the larger paintings. With such bright and vivid colors the Matisse's had a light of their own, but the Soutine's had a glow that came from within the paintings--it was another kind of light" (W. de Kooning, quoted in D. Waldman, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1988, p, 136).
"It came, with the artist in his mid-seventies," described David Sylvester in perfect summation of de Kooning's 1977 canvases, "as the climax of a period in which the paintings--most of them landscapes of the body, some purely macrocosmic landscapes--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. 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. Blurred forms loom up, often in extreme close-up, simultaneously adumbrated and dissolved by the paintThese paintings are crystallizations of the experience and amazement of having body and mind dissolve into another who is all delight" (D. Sylvester, op. cit.).