Untitled XXIII is one of a remarkable series of large oils that de Kooning made in the mid-1970s in a sudden burst of activity. Absorbed throughout much of the early seventies with the making of sculpture and the new material possibilities it provided him, de Kooning painted relatively few pictures. Those he painted did not come easily and took a long time. In the spring of 1975, what had seemed to him a long dry spell of painterly inactivity suddenly came to an end. In a burst of creativity that was to last until 1978, de Kooning found himself once again reveling in the act of painting as a joyous and deeply sensual experience.
This last great series of paintings by de Kooning form the culmination of much that he had attempted in the past but never resolved. When he first moved to the Springs on Long Island, de Kooning enjoyed the unique landscape of the area and in many ways this entered and informed his work. Now in the mid-seventies 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 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 by its shimmering surface and its ability to reflect and merge the imagery of the land, sky, figures and itself in a constantly shifting abstract surface of color and form. It was this mercurial effect that he began again to emulate in his paintings, attempting to translate it into the equally fluid but more materially substantial and plastic medium of paint. Following a series of paintings loosely based on the theme of the figure in the landscape-- in which de Kooning internalized the outer scene as if it were portrayed both the inner experience of the landscape by the figure and a record of that interaction-- de Kooning now began to create works that suggested a totality of expression.
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 as well as the path of the painterly process and time's continual passage. Emulating the natural world's continuous flux 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 so often materialized with such vigor in 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 in 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 Léger 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 colours 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" (W. de Kooning, quoted in D. Waldman Willem de Kooning, New York, 1988, p, 136).
It was this innate sense of light coming from within the paint itself that de Kooning set out to capture and express in his paintings of the 1970s. The light that permeates these loose, fluid, watery expressions is in fact the light of the Atlantic Ocean, that vast watery expanse around which his entire artistic life revolved. "I wanted to get back to a feeling of light in painting," he told Harold Rosenberg, "I wanted to get in touch with nature. Not painting scenes from nature, but to get the feeling of that light that was very appealing to me, here particularly, I was always very much interested in water. When the light hits the ocean there is kind of a grey light on the water" (W. de Kooning, quoted in "Interview with Harold Rosenberg," Art News, September 1972)
Mixing the precise color he required in a series of individual salad bowls laid out on vast glass-top tables that he also used as palettes, de Kooning sought to divine 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...I've done it for years. (Like) the 'water gazers' in the beginning of Moby Dick. When Ishmael felt desperate and didn't know what to do and went to Battery Place. That's what I do. There is something about being in touch with the sea that makes me feel good. That's where most of my paintings come from even when I made them in New York" (W. de Kooning, quoted in Ibid.).
Filtered through his eye and memory, de Kooning's visions of life clearly reflect the physicality and human scale of the artist himself, immersed in this shifting landscape of light and fluidity as if caught reflected on the surface of the sea. "Whatever I see becomes my shapes and my condition," de Kooning said, reflecting on how his gestural painterly responses translated his perception into almost visceral expressions and rhythms on a human scale (W. de Kooning, quoted in D. Waldman, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1988, p.1). It is for this reason that de Kooning can never be considered a purely abstract painter: the forms and shapes of his paintings-- manifestations of the motion of his own body-- always articulate hints or glimpses of the physical structure and material core of the natural world.
An inherently corporeal artist, De Kooning used large housepainter's brushes to apply and slosh the paint onto his canvases. The emphatic liquidity of the paint and the burly scale of these brushes allowed the artist, with his small hands and strong wrists, to flick and sharply twist this fluid material into surprisingly visceral forms. In Untitled XXIII this corporeality is conveyed not just through the fierce physicality of de Kooning's sweeping and meandering line, boldly applied to the surface in a constantly moving play of gestural and directional form, but also through the rich fleshy tones and deep red hues of his paint. Seemingly returning to a theme that had permeated his work of the 1960s and early 1970s, there are hints of a female figure set into a landscape discernible in this work, her naked fleshy form echoing that of a painting such as The Visit of 1966-67 as well as some of his more recent sculptures. Amidst the fleeting glimpses and suggestions of physical form, the figure, landscape, and the viewer's own gaze merge into one another, each becoming a part of a shimmering surface that is animated and enlivened by the dramatic abstract sea of de Kooning's magisterial brushwork. As in many of de Kooning's most daring paintings there is a sensual delight in the fluid manipulation of the fleshy paint that lends his brushwork an erotic, even orgasmic, quality. Clashing with one another, splashing, dripping, coagulating and merging in spectacular cascades, de Kooning's colors tumble and crash over the surface of the painting like waves against rocks, foaming and bubbling, building and subsiding in an energetic and sensual physical play that is seemingly without beginning or end.
The product of an ongoing artistic odyssey that lasted over half a century, no de Kooning painting was, in fact, ever "finished" or complete. Each was, as Robert Storr once pointed out, merely an "episode in painting," a staging-post on a life-long voyage of discovery and exploration. De Kooning's paintings are not monuments but open-ended, self-manifesting fusions of his life, activity and vision. He believed this act of painting stopped and the work was made when he felt he had "painted himself out of the picture." "I refrain from 'finishing' it," he said, "I paint myself out of the picture, and when I have done that. I either throw it away or keep it. I am always in the picture somewhere. The amount of space I use I am always in, I seem to move around in it, and there seems to be a time when I lose sight of what I wanted to do, and then I am out of it. If the picture has a countenance I keep it, if it hasn't, I throw it away" (W. de Kooning, quoted in R. Goodnough, ed., "Artists' Sessions at Studio 35," 1950, R. Motherwell and A. Reinhardt, ed., Modern Artists In America, New York, 1951, p.12).