All his life, Willem de Kooning was a "water-gazer." In 1977, the year in which he created his last great series of paintings, the favorite pastime of this seventy-three year old immigrant artist was to cycle from his house in the Springs, Long Island, out to Louse Point. There, he would spend an hour or two, amongst its fishermen, silently contemplating the watery surface of the sea and its fluid ever-changing play of light shimmering under the sky.
Untitled XVII is one of a remarkable series of paintings that were made in a sudden burst of creative activity in the mid-1970s and which, according to de Kooning "just poured out of me like water." Somewhat surprised to find himself reveling once again in the act of painting, after a period of relative difficulty with painting in the early 1970s during which he had turned to sculpture, de Kooning now found that he literally "could not put down the brush." In between the heavy drinking bouts which continued to plague him, the ease and freshness with which his new paintings came to him made de Kooning feel as if a weight had been lifted. Anxious not to lose this feeling and the sense of momentum that these works generated in him, he focused intently on his work throughout this period growing reluctant to stray from his home and studio. "I made those paintings one after the other, no trouble at all, I couldn't miss," he later said, "It's a nice feeling. It's strange. It's a man at a gambling table (who) feels that he can't lose. But when he walks away with the dough, he knows that 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 in M. Prather, Willem de Kooning Paintings, exh. cat., Washington. D.C. 1994, p. 197).
Like the skin of the sea, which held such a mesmerizing power over de Kooning throughout his life, surface is the key element in all of his paintings. "I get the paint right on the surface" he told his friend and lover Emilie Kilgore in the mid-1970s, "nobody else can do that." By this he meant that he had found a unique way of allowing every brush stroke to assert its own fluid but intrinsically material identity in his work so that it conjoined with every other stroke within a completely autonomous state of equilibrium and balance. As in Untitled XVII, every thing that goes on in a de Kooning painting, every gesture, inflection, smudge, splash, twist, turn and halting point, takes place overtly in full view, right there on the surface for all to see. Nothing is hidden or submerged, there appears to be no patient build-up or pre-meditation, no modeling or craft, only a constantly shifting ebb and flow of paint establishing its own unique identity on the flat surface of the canvas support. Like Heraclitus' river, (a unity of chaotic flow), randomness and flux seem held together in de Kooning's work, by an innate but indecipherable ordering principle. In the same way that Heraclitus observed that, because of its constantly flowing nature, one could never, in fact, step into the same river twice, no two de Kooning's are ever alike either.
This unique quality of de Kooning's paintings, one that conveys not just a powerful sense of the act of painting but also of the personal experience and feeling of laying paint down and making a mark, could only be arrived at by the extraordinary lengths de Kooning went to keep every element of his painting immediate, fresh and fluid. Although his paintings look spontaneous, gestural and impulsive, they were in fact the product of hours of painstaking observation, contemplation and decision-making, usually made, in the 1970s, from the comfort of a rocking chair placed about ten feet away from the painting. As Emilie Kilgore, remembered of de Kooning's working practice at this time, "how much time there was concentrating and looking, sitting in that chair! Maybe having a cigarette. But still just looking with such intensity. And then getting up and walking over...still with his eye on the painting and then Kershewwww! Everything leading up to it was so long and then he got there and it was always pretty quick" (E. Kilgore, quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swan, De Kooning : An American Master, New York, 2005, pp. 542-3).
In order to keep his paint fresh and still fluid while he figured out his next move, de Kooning used a unique and watery mixture of oil paint which, once applied, he would often cover with newspaper, using it to slow down the drying process and keep the surface damp. When the newspaper was pulled off, the imprinted paper would, along with the many other painted trials he made repeatedly on layer upon layer of tracing paper and any other surface he had to hand, often serve as prompts and ideas for other marks to be used in the work itself. This very open-ended way of working, which he had first developed in the 1940s, enabled de Kooning to keep a uniform and consistent sense of fluidity running throughout the entire surface of his work and ensured that the painting as a whole developed in a homogenous and almost organic way.
It is this wetness, fluidity and immediacy, along with de Kooning's self-evdent revelry in the freedom of his medium that is celebrated in Untitled XVII. Encouraging each of his brush marks to flow into, merge, blend or overwrite the others in a seemingly endlessly and fluid interaction of form, de Kooning has encouraged his brushstrokes to maintain the immediacy and spontaneous energy which after the long period of contemplation and decision-making was over, he almost impulsively brought to the act of making them.
In order to attain the very loose and fluid consistency in his paint necessary for this process to work, de Kooning used a unique blend of water, kerosene, benzine or safflower oil with his pigments to bind and thin this oil paint. This complex process, which lent his paint its extraordinary ability to be sloshed, splashed and dripped as well as smeared, pulled and almost molded onto the surface, also often resulted in a rippling effect when the paint dried. Like much that was accidental and physical, this natural, and again watery effect, often avoided by many artists, was actually welcomed by de Kooning.
Like other great paintings from this series reflecting the flux and pattern of light on the water such as the appropriately titled North Atlantic Light and Whose Name was Writ in Water, in Untitled XVII de Kooning has created a mesmeric and flickering surface of sumptuous texture and shifting color. Smearing and even sanding earlier brushmarks in places before covering and replacing them with ever fresher and newer splashes and sweeps of paint, the surface of this work flows, pours and splutters in an extraordinary rippled sequence of suggestive glimpses of form. In this, looser and more fluid way, the painting echoes the more structured but equally fascinating glimpses offered in some of his earlier masterpieces such as Excavation of 1950 which had also reflected surprisingly powerful glimpses and suggestions of form coexisting just beneath the surface of his ever moving brushwork.
"You know the real world, this so-called real world, is just something you put up with, like everybody else," de Kooning stated. "I'm in my element when I am a little bit out of this world: then I'm in the real world -- I'm on the beam. Because when I'm falling, I'm doing all right; when I'm slipping, I say, hey, this is interesting! It's when I'm standing upright that it bothers me; I'm not doing so good; I'm stiff. As a matter of fact, I'm really slipping most of the time, into that glimpse. I'm like a slipping glimpser" (W. de Kooning, quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swan, De Kooning : An American Master, New York, 2005, p. 571).