Painted circa 1942, Untitled is a rare and early abstract painting dating to the period when the influence of European artists on the emerging New York School of American painters, and on de Kooning in particular, was at its height. Fleeing from the Nazi conquest of Europe, European artists who had long influenced the fledgling American avant-garde began to pack into Manhattan, transforming and invigorating the Midtown art scene. Among those who arrived in New York between 1939 and 1942 were Piet Mondrian, Andr© Breton, Max Ernst, Matta, Yves Tanguy, Andr© Masson, and Marcel Duchamp.
For the struggling de Kooning and his close friend and comrade-at-arms Arshille Gorky, who lived Downtown and rarely mixed with the smarter Midtown scene frequented by the Europeans, the presence of these predominantly Surrealist artists was experienced more from a distance than first-hand. Of all the new arrivals, it was predominantly the English-speaking Chilean artist Matta who served as their closest link to this European influx, and proved to have the greatest direct influence on their work.
Throughout the 1930s, de Kooning and Gorky, along with Stuart Davis and John Graham, emulated and absorbed the lessons of Cubism and, most importantly, Picasso. The 1939 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Picasso: Forty Years of his Art, was highly influential, as it enabled these artists to see many of Picasso's works, including Guernica, for the first time.
Untitled is a work that reflects a flood of European influence on de Kooning's art, but also shows the first signs of the emergence of his own unique style. Assertive in its strong sense of surface and overt celebration of the fluidity of its paint, it demonstrates the European origin of much of de Kooning's mature style. A fusion of the amorphous shapes of Arp and Mir©, Matta's morphology, and the strange figural distortions of Picasso's Surrealist period, there remains, as in all of de Kooning's work, a strong suggestion of the figure at the root of his abstraction from nature.
One of only a few paintings to remain from this important period in de Kooning's career, Untitled has survived as a result of its acquisition by de Kooning's friends and neighbors, Edwin Denby and Rudolph Burkhardt, soon after it was painted. Later to become a poet and dance critic, respectively, as well as significant influences on the artist, Denby and Burckhardt were among de Kooning's first supporters and collectors of his work. "It was well known," the critic Dore Ashton recalled of this period, "that de Kooning and Gorky chose poverty rather than to compromise their work. De Kooning's reputation for working slowly, scraping out, starting all over again, and never really finishing a painting was legendary already in 1943." (Dore Ashton cited in Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, De Kooning: An American Master New York 2005, p. 189) Not only did de Kooning rarely "finish" a painting at this time, he was also well-known, like his contemporary Francis Bacon in England, for often destroying or completely reworking those works that he did finish.
In his retrospective essay for de Kooning's 1969 exhibition at MoMA, critic and friend of the artist Thomas Hess noted that this practice of continual reworking created a situation whereby very few de Kooning paintings from this important experimental period in the early 1940s now exist. "Most of the surviving works of that decade," Hess wrote, "are those that were taken away from the artist.A friend would come in a buy a picture for the then princely sum of a few hundred dollars - Denby or Burckhardt, Fairfield Porter or Max Margulis, or Janice Biala and Daniel Brustlein - or someone would drop by and admire a canvas that the artist was about to wipe out, and persuade him to give it away. Some pictures were lent to friends and never returned. A few simply disappeared and only surfaced again twenty years later." (Thomas Hess, Willem de Kooning, exh. cat. New York, 1968, p. 21)
Untitled is one of de Kooning's most important abstract paintings from this period. Utilizing the long slender-bristled liner brush he has used as a sign painter, de Kooning allows the lyrical sense of line encouraged by such a brush to determine the fluid, amorphous forms of the painting. Pushed and pulled into exaggerated fluid shapes that reflect a sensual response to the liquid feel and material nature of the paint, as much as they do any conscious or planned design, the almost completely abstract forms of this painting seem to inhabit a Mir©-like world of dream-fantasy rendered flat on the surface of the painting. Here foreground and background are made indistinguishable as each shape, set against an infinite field of orange, articulates a compositional rhythm of form that seemingly dances across the surface of the painting like an abstract ballet. In the center of the painting a wavelike, Gorky-esque amorphous figure, seemingly derived from Picasso's distorted bathers of 1929 or '30, anticipates, in one way, de Kooning's great "breakthrough" painting of 1946, Pink Angels, and in another, the more brutal distortion of the human figure that would appear a few years later in Francis Bacon's Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.
Unlike either Picasso or Bacon, however, the image as subject matter in de Kooning's painting is of little importance. What is important is the way in which it has been made, the process through which it has come into being and the action of the painting itself. Whereas Picasso's figures, or indeed Bacon's, are concrete constructions emerging from the artist's mind, de Kooning's images emerge or have been found through the process of painting. In this respect, de Kooning's works are more performance than statement, part of an open-ended developmental, ongoing act of painting that can be resolved by never completed. "I was never interested in how to make a good painting," de Kooning said, for many years I was not interested in making a good painting - as one might say 'now this is a really good painting' or a 'perfect work'. I didn't want to pin it down at all. I was interested in that before, but I found out it was not in my nature. I didn't work on it with the idea of perfection, but to see how far one could go - but not with the idea of really doing it. With anxiousness and dedication to fright maybe, or ecstasy, like the Divine Comedy, to be like a performer: to see how long you can stay on the stage with that imaginary audience' (Willem de Kooning, 'Content is a Glimpse: Interview with David Sylvester,' 1963, in Location New York, Spring 1963, p. 47).