Willem de Kooning unleashed the full force of his painterly virtuosity in the deeply sensual and complex surface of Untitled IV. He executed the canvas in 1975, by which time he was widely revered as the greatest living American painter. Untitled IV displays the unmistakable bravado gesture and rich coloration which he had developed over decades of working in oil paint. Yet Untitled IV also represents a dramatic turning point in the artist's career. After shying away from painting for several years, during which he grappled with the debilitating effects of alcohol and depression, de Kooning returned to oil paint with renewed vitality in 1975. This turned out to be one of his most prodigious years as an artist, as he created an astonishing group of 20 large-scale abstract paintings in a brief six month span between the spring and fall. New York gallery Fourcade, Droll, Inc. displayed these paintings in October to November of that year. Stunned by his sudden burst of inspiration and confidence, de Kooning considered this an exceptional moment in his career. "I couldn't miss," he mused, "It's like a man at a gambling table [who] feels that he can't lose. But when he walks away with all the dough, he knows he can't do that again. Because then it gets self-conscious. I wasn't self-conscious, I just did it" (W. de Kooning, quoted by M. Stevens and A. Swan, Willem de Kooning: An American Master 2004, pp. 561-2).
Working in his studio in The Springs, on the eastern end of Long Island, de Kooning was greatly inspired by the luminous watery landscape that surrounded him. He made it a daily ritual to ride his bike to Louse Point, and meditate upon the fluctuating surface of the ocean. As de Kooning explained, "I wanted to get in touch with nature. Not painting scenes from nature, but to get a feeling of that light that was very appealing to me, here particularly. I was always very much interested in water" (W. de Kooning quoted in H. Rosenberg, "Interview with Willem de Kooning," Art News 71, September 1972). The undulating rhythms of brushwork in Untitled IV recall the oceanic flux that entranced de Kooning. "There is something about being in touch with the sea that makes me feel good, it is the source where most of my painting comes from," de Kooning explained (W. de Kooning, quoted in Willem de Kooning: Paintings, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., p. 198).
In Untitled IV, de Kooning layered across the canvas broad strokes of varying visual speed, from whiplash paint lines to slowly scraped passages displaying an extraordinary gestural fluidity. His predilection for painting wet-on-wet only served to amplify the spontaneity of his dazzling repertoire of gestures. Planes of colors glide into one another or spectacularly crash into each other across an expanse of white paint. In certain passages de Kooning has scraped away pigment, and then overlaid new strokes of paint, evoking a primordial struggle between the forces of creation and destruction.
De Kooning preferred to work on a number of canvases simultaneously at this time, which imparted a strong sense of fluidity between his compositions. Sometimes he would begin a painting based on a drawing of another composition, which he would then take in a new direction. One of the works included in the 1975 exhibition alongside Untitled IV was Whose Name Was Writ in Water (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum). The title of this work is revealing, as it was drawn from the epitaph found on the tomb of the Romantic poet John Keats, which de Kooning recalled from a visit to Rome in 1960. The transience of life would thematically permeate other works in the series, although de Kooning began to favor leaving his works untitled with simply numbers to distinguish them.
In the 1970s, de Kooning preferred to work on a large scale, so that the canvas extended just beyond the breadth of his reach at about seven feet wide. Upon the broad surfaces of these canvases, he could engage his whole body in vigorous gestures. There is a strikingly tactile quality to the impastoed surface of Untitled IV, which may be due in part to de Kooning spending the previous few years working in sculpture rather than painting. The intense and compressed visual field that he conjures in Untitled IV immerses the viewer and provokes from them a kinesthetic response. With a sense of visual dynamism akin to ocean waves breaking, De Kooning's nuanced orchestration of color and gesture in Untitled IV succeeds in appearing extemporaneous, although the canvas is in fact rigorously composed.