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Traversed by generous, sweeping ribbons of color, Untitled XXIV captures the poetical nature of the last great suite of paintings that Willem de Kooning produced during the 1980s. With its fluid brushstrokes and bold, unrestrained use of color, this work comes from a period which is regarded as having produced some of the most celebrated paintings of the artist’s career. Just as Henri Matisse had begun to do at the turn of the century in such modernist masterpieces as The Dance, de Kooning’s paintings of this period fearlessly liberated line and color from representation, making de Kooning the inheritor of Matisse’s legacy of artistic exploration. Like The Dance, Untitled XXIV embodies a sense of joy and movement that is beautifully articulated through dazzling expressionist color and gesture. The arcs of de Kooning’s brushstrokes echo the curves of Matisse’s dancers, and the two artists’ masterful manipulation of vibrant hues endow their paintings with a striking aura. As the critic Robert Storr noted of de Kooning’s paintings at this time, “Of these works, a significant number count among the most remarkable paintings by anyone then active and among the most distinctive graceful, and mysterious de Kooning himself ever made” (R. Storr, “At Last Light,” in G. Garrels (ed.), Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings, the 1980s, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1996, p. 39). Untitled XXIV contains an unprecedented sense of ease and elegant restrain, which capped de Kooning’s career, crystallizing the powerful rapture of his brushstrokes into a definitive and remarkable painting.
Across a rich and complex variegated surface, de Kooning weaves an intricate formation of vivid streams of colorful pigment that coalesce and entwine in a delicate dance of light and color. Fiery reds, brilliant cobalt blues and their associated tones appear and then disappear as de Kooning’s brush meanders across the canvas. Painted using the wet-on-wet technique of applying consecutive layers of fresh paint, de Kooning’s colorful trails merge into each other, beginning as pure passages of color before transforming themselves into more complex tones as they come into contact with the artist’s previous painterly incarnations. In Untitled XXIV, De Kooning’s multifaceted construction also extends to the surface up on which this painterly action plays out, as he extends this energy and vivacity to the painted ground. Ostensibly white, passages of darker blues, red and mauves push through to the surface as the artist endows every inch of this surface with an active sense of chromatic dynamism.
De Kooning’s remarkable canvases from this period are the result of an innovative painting technique that he developed during the early 1980s. Abandoning the traditional upright perspective of the canvas, de Kooning would complete his paintings by rotating them by 90 degrees throughout the painting process. Often beginning painting in the upper right hand corner—a technique developed due to his practice of placing another painting (particularly from the 1960s or 1970s) alongside his new canvas in order to reference existing forms or colors—he would have his studio assistants rotate the painting so he could begin working on another part of the canvas. Using a blend of turpentine, stand oil and pigment, de Kooning would apply lines or areas of color, before rotating the canvas again and working on a new area, often overlapping with previous passages and building up translucent layers through which his previous activity could be seen. This process would continue over a number of days during which he would continuously apply, turn, and reapply the paint resulting in an ever changing patchwork of colors.
Despite this unrestrained vitality, it has often been remarked that works such as Untitled XXIV almost did not exist. In the late 1970s, de Kooning’s lifestyle had taken a serious toll on his health, drastically reducing his productivity. Between 1979 and 1980 de Kooning had painted only a few works, as his studio assistant at the time Tom Ferrara later emphasized, “It was a real event if he painted’ (T. Ferrara, quoted in De Kooning: a Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, 2011, p. 442). Yet, by 1980 de Kooning had successfully stopped drinking. The artist’s wife Elaine—with whom de Kooning had been estranged for years—had moved back to East Hampton and resumed contact with him, bringing some order to his life and helping him to overcome alcoholism and bouts of depression. Against all expectations, in 1981, de Kooning thus returned to the canvas. Animated by rediscovered energy and enthusiasm, the artist embarked upon his final great series of works.
With its free-floating ribbons of color, Untitled XXIV appears as the result of some spontaneous, immediate expression. Yet, just as it had been the case with de Kooning’s earlier works, these late works were the result of a prolonged and careful creative process. In his career, de Kooning had become famous for the long pauses that punctuated his work, during which he would sit in a rocking chair smoking and intensively scrutinizing the painting in front of him before he could add one more brushstroke. Works such as Untitled XXIV were executed over similarly long periods of time and reflection, during which the artist would often re-orient the canvas, rotating it to its left or to its right. Through this process, the artist was able to organically develop the composition until it found its intrinsic balance. At de Kooning’s request, in the 1980s Ferrara started to document the progression of the works in photographs, suggesting that the various stages of a work harbored for the artist as many further creative cues as the finished work. This idea that forms and colors could evolve and dialogue across canvases had long been part of de Kooning’s painting practice. In the 1960s and 1970s, the artist had developed the habit of placing a finished work next to the empty canvas so that the forms and the colors of the former could trigger the development of the latter. In the 1980s, by rotating the canvas, de Kooning delved even more drastically into the open-ended possibilities embedded in one single work, letting the constant shifts of the painting determine its own course. This creative process freed de Kooning’s 1980s paintings form a fixed vertical-horizontal axis, opening works such as Untitled XXIV to another dimension, in which color ripples across an all-embracing, absolute space.
De Kooning’s painting technique also evolved to keep pace with the bouncing streaks of color twirling in his work. The artist started working with a taper’s knife—the flat bladed tool used in drywall construction—in order to stretch out the paint across the canvas with fluid, generous movements, achieving an almost calligraphic effect. The composition of his paint had also changed. Warned by a conservator about the volatility of his favorite and unusual paint mix, containing water and safflower oil, in the 1980s de Kooning started to use a conventional mixing medium. Instead of pre-mixing the paint with the medium in a bowl, as he had done until the 1970s, the artist would now squeeze the paint directly onto a huge glass-topped table, picking it up in large blobs with a brush imbued in varnish, oil and turpentine, effectively mixing paint and medium directly on the canvas, as the brushstroke progressed on the surface. This new technique helped de Kooning to free his works from the heavy, thick, buttery surfaces of the late-seventies works. In Untitled XXIV, the paint retains the fluidity and sensuousness of de Kooning’s characteristic touch, yet the brushstrokes appear endowed with an unexpected lightness, a seductive transparency which lends a sense of real freedom to the work.
Inaugurating a significant new phase in de Kooning’s painting practice, works such as Untitled XXIV chart a change of direction in the artist’s intentions. This new development in the artist’s career was spurred, in part, by de Kooning’s recent rediscovery of Henri Matisse. In 1980, the artist observed “Lately I’ve been thinking that it would be nice to be influenced by Matisse. I mean, he’s so lighthearted. I have a book about how he was old and he cut out colored patterns and he made it so joyous. I would like to do that, too—not like him, but joyous, more or less” (De Kooning, quoted by M. Stevens & A. Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2004, p. 589). The supple, exuberant lines of Matisse’s late cut-outs evoked the idea of youthful play, engaged at a moment of physical decline. This contrast—between the artist’s waning physical power and the ever-forceful energy of his imagination—must have encouraged de Kooning in what would be the last, great moment of his career. From 1980 to 1985, the artist worked fervidly, painting at great speed and with rediscovered faith: in 1982 de Kooning executed twenty-eight works, augmenting his yearly production to over fifty works in the next two consecutive years. The lightness and the festive undertones of works such as Untitled XXIV bestow onto the artist’s late paintings a positive dimension, a joyous simplicity that is all the more compelling when one considers the harsh phase the artist had just emerged from. For the novelty they introduced in de Kooning’s painting, works such as Untitled XXIV demonstrates the artist’s inspired stubbornness, his relentless faith in painting’s potential.
Matisse’s example, however, had not only encouraged de Kooning to address painting once more with emphasis, it had also encouraged the artist to think anew about his art. In Matisse’s work, de Kooning perceived a quality that now—from the height of experience and self-assurance that his age had given him—he was ready to tackle. Ferrara explained “It was the ethereal thing about Matisse that appealed to him as an old man” (T. Ferrara, quoted by M. Stevens & A. Swan, op. cit., p. 589). In Untitled XXIV, de Kooning strived for a sense of restrain: the dense iridescences of his earlier works are replaced by ample pauses of white; the charged surfaces have given way to free-flowing, transparent, uninterrupted single brushstrokes. By covering the canvas in white paint, before starting to work on it wet-on-wet, de Kooning achieved in this work a watery effect. The canvas has been transformed into a fluid surface on which colors move freely, pulling their lightness from its glowing whiteness. Age, it seems, had brought de Kooning a new pictorial wisdom. Joan Levy, a painter friend of de Kooning’s daughter Lisa, would later recall a conversation with the artist “When he started doing those paintings of the eighties, the light was pouring out. He said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘They’re so ethereal. It looks like you died and went to heaven’. De Kooning agreed: ‘Yes, that is what I was going for” (W. de Kooning, quoted by M. Stevens & A. Swan, op. cit., p. 591).