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Please note that the correct provenance for this lot is:
Estate of Willem de Kooning, New York
Thomas Ammann Fine Art, Zurich
Matthew Marks Gallery, New York
Private collection, New York
L&M Arts, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Post Lot Text
With dazzlingly fluid gestures, Willem de Kooning creates a roiling pictorial space filled with roaming bands of color created from a palette that gracefully fluctuates through a range of blues, yellows, whites, and grays. As light radiates from the canvas, nimble transitions between variegated blues – ultramarine, Prussian, and cobalt – transform into veridian green as yellow is introduced, lending a sense of vitality to the field. With incremental permutations, whites move into grays that cut through and weave a pool of sumptuous impasto lightly accented with soft blue diffused with black. A synthesis of liquescence and color contours, of parts fused into a single expansive field, Untitled III is developed much like the land- and seascapes that surrounded de Kooning on the East End of Long Island. As he told the critic Howard Rosenberg in 1972, “When the light hits the ocean, there is kind of a gray light on the water… Indescribable tones, almost. I started working with them and instead that they would give me the kind of light I wanted” (W. de Kooning, “Transcript of an interview with de Kooning,” H. Rosenberg papers, the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, 1971, published as “Interview with Willem de Kooning,” Artnews 81, no. 5 (September), p. 58).
By the 1970s, de Kooning not only loaded his canvases with paint and scraped them down, but also undertook an under-drawing process in carbon-laden pigment, which virtually effaced the primed canvas. The fluidity of the overpainted pigmented lines and the softness of the overall surface texture is due to de Kooning having sanded the paint down, creating the slight blur of atmosphere so prized in works from this period. De Kooning’s habit of rotating his canvases as he worked can be seen in the multidirectional brush strokes and drips that add to the rhythmic movement of whole. Along with rotation, de Kooning would add non-drying solvents to the paint in order to obtain the sumptuous wet-on-wet effect, dipping the loaded brush into wet color, blending it into new colors as pigment is twisted and folded again and again.
In 1970, his dealer Xavier Fourcade took de Kooning to Japan, where they stayed near Mount Fuji and explored not only the area around it but also Japanese drawing in ink, in particular the calligraphic marks that he rephrased in an attempt to extend his mastery of line and tone. Untitled III carries over the shift in texture from opaque to virtually transparent tonality in the greys and blues in particular, as if the artist had absorbed the style of Sumi-e brush painting, as for example in the lithograph owned by the Museum of Modern Art, Wah Kee Spare Ribs, 1970, a medium with which de Kooning was preoccupied in the early years of the decade. Here, de Kooning expresses sensitivity to tonal line and control of contour, seen particularly in a motif he employed in the lithograph, a schematized sun in Study for Stenographer, 1948, and in the present work – the oval from which several lines radiate.
During the years 1970 to 1974, de Kooning was absorbed in sculptural work, but by 1975, the artist had resumed his focus on painting, embarking on a series of which the present work forms a part. In them all, abstracted rhythms and undulating strokes describe a fluid network of lambent color, such as we see in Untitled III, all spread over large-scale canvases generally measuring 80 x 70 or 80 x 77. A year after its completion, Untitled III would be featured in a retrospective exhibition for the Pittsburgh International Series. Untitled III was among the works for which de Kooning won the Andrew W. Mellon Prize (shared with Eduoardo Chillida) for that year (Willem de Kooning Pittsburgh International Series, Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburg, 1979-1980). The work was celebrated at the time for the sheer velocity of movement with which the eye roves the canvas, pointing to de Kooning’s interest in creating simultaneous foci, what art historian John Elderfield describes as “multiple centers of interest, and therefore a continual distraction, of vision being shuttled about the surface, so that it may rest anywhere but can settle nowhere” (J. Elderfield, “Space to Paint,” de Kooning: a Retrospective, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011, p. 25).
Drawing and contour take primacy in Untitled III, a lyrical essay in color, light, and luxuriant texture, where fields of color are bounded by chromatic bands, where, in essence, strands of viscous paint appear as drawn lines of jewel-like coloration. The color reflects light off a seascape of blues and greens, the froth of tumbling waves white against a graying sky. In Untitled III, there are no obvious “hot spots,” de Kooning’s phrase for what the artist considered “a disturbing quality in the paint,” which constrains the eye to rest on a particular element in the painting. Untitled III invites the eye to wander, to settle into the sumptuous impasto, to be lead among the swells and dips of pulsating banded brushstrokes.
Untitled III is among a series of paintings made in the late 1970s that convey a keen sense of place – the atmospheres of ocean and the sky in East Hampton. “The color is influenced by the natural light. That’s what is so good here (W. de Kooning, quoted in C. Willard, “In the Art Galleries,” New York Post, August 23, 1964, p. 44). The soft, voluptuous colors and textures of glue-greens and melting whites and yellows summon the out of door ambiance of natural light. “The grey-green grass, the beach grass, and the ocean was a kind of steely grey most of the time. When the light hits the ocean there is a kind of grey light on the water… Indescribable tones, almost. I started working with them 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… I did very well with that. I got into painting in the atmosphere I wanted to be in. It was like the reflection of light. I reflected upon the reflection on the water….” (W. de Kooning, quoted in Harold Rosenberg, “Interview with Willem de Kooning," Art News Vol. 71, no. 5, September 1972, p. 56).
Curator and art historian Jack Cowart observed that 1978, the year Untitled III was created, marked a new moment in de Kooning’s creative life. It was a moment when de Kooning turned to what he called the tableaux: “forcefully composed paintings with ideas of less frontal or variously posed figures in a well defined landscape space” (J. Cowart, “De Kooning Today,” de Kooning 1969 – 78, Gallery of Art, University of Northern Iowa, 1978, p. 15). By the time Untitled III was featured with three other paintings of the “Untitled series” (I, IV) in the 1981 Whitney Biennial, it was clear that Untitled III was among the most scintillating of the master’s tableaux, a “landscape” from a catalytic moment in his by-then five-decade long career. De Kooning said that he was more of a “novelist than a poet,” by which he meant that his work details a narration – much as a tableau – a canvas filled with incidents and forms that “ have the emotion of a concrete experience.” De Kooning said he was “happy to see that the grass is green…. Content is a glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash….” (W. de Kooning, “Content is a Glimpse…” rpt. Willem de Kooning, Pittsburgh International Series, op. cit, p. 24). Untitled III offers an encounter with one of the great masters of twentieth-century art, a window into his relationship with nature, with the land and sea as he transcribed it simply by brushing wet paint into wet paint.