The group of paintings executed in 1977 represent the pinnacle of achievement in de Kooning's late works. They are magisterial, corporeal and filled with virtuoso effects. For the artist who has explored the dialectical relationship between figuration and abstraction to their greatest potential, the series from 1977 is a major hallmark. The works are a breathtaking summation of his lifelong discourse on the nature of painting.
By the mid 1960s, de Kooning had begun to live year-round in East Hampton and had been fully established in his new studio in the Springs. Eastern Long Island reminded the Dutch artist of his homeland with its low marshes and proximity to the ocean. He often observed the surf while sitting on the beach or bicycling nearby to Louse Pont--the rhythms of the waves, sunlight reflected on the water, the horizon line where the sky and water meet, shifting sand dunes--all were absorbed by the artist who was once inspired by the gritty and tumultuous environs of New York City.
Although he had been living in East Hampton for a decade, it was not until the mid-1970s when he experienced an epiphany about his new home. De Kooning had said, "When I moved into this house, everything seemed self-evident. The space, the light, the trees--I just accepted it without thinking about it much. Now I look around with new eyes. I think it's all a kind of miracle." (Quoted in M. Prather, Willem de Kooning: Paintings, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., 1994, p. 197.) As an artist who assimilated the look and feel of his immediate environment in his work, the former self-avowed New Yorker began an astonishing series of paintings that reflected the dramatic change of his surroundings. More than ever, de Kooning was now totally captivated by nature and its mutable character. "I got into painting atmosphere I wanted to be in. It was like the reflection of light. I reflected upon the reflections on the water, like the fishermen do." (W. de Kooning quoted in H. Rosenberg, de Kooning, New York, 1973, p. 50.) Additionally as he began to take stylistic cues from the themes of water and reflection, his brushstrokes broadened and more quivering and quickening.
Untitled fits the description of de Kooning's statement: it is atmosphere, light and water. The painting has a cool, marine-like appearance with brushstrokes that mimic ocean waves, dappled, reflected sunlight on the water, and the cool fog of a summer day in the morning. Its composition consists of broad areas of paint that interlock with one another with the use of the darker colors bordering these areas. The thick passages of white paint merge with the colors beneath due to de Kooning's instinctive spreading and scraping of the paint so that one could see the additional colors underneath. There is an extraordinary amount of variety of paint textures; the eye continues to be dazzled by these amazing effects.
Marla Prather speaks of Untitled as the culmination of earlier work: "In works such as the Eastman collection's Untitled de Kooning reconciled the opposing forces of painterly fracture and compositional structure. Despite vigorously brushed paint and complex surface textures, the strokes of color in each work establish a loose, residual grid. If the Eastman painting is compared with a work like Interchange from 1955, it becomes clear how the artist organized the compositions around roughly horizontal and vertical strokes. In Untitled the lighter areas are partly bounded by strokes of dark blue and black that divide the painting into sections not unlike those in Interchange. Such recapitulations of earlier strategies can be seen throughout de Kooning's late work." (M. Prather, p. 199.) Not to completely abandon figuration, de Kooning leaves tantalizing clues to flesh and bodily images throughout Untitled, as it is his nature not to exclude the concrete and the real. In the lower left corner of the painting, for example, located is a woman's red high-heeled shoe. Tinges of flesh tones suggesting the body are highlighted on the white passages. A hand outlined in black floats in the lower section of the painting.
De Kooning favored the squarish format of the painting for his large-scale abstractions of the late period. In an interview with Harold Rosenberg in September 1972, de Kooning said, "If I make a big painting I want it to be intimate. I want to separate it from the mural. I want it to stay an easel painting. It has to be a painting, not something made for a special place. The squarish aspect gives me the feeling of an ordinary size. I like a big painting to get involved so that it becomes intimate; that it really start to lose its measurements." (de Kooning, reprinted in H. Rosenberg, p. 43.) De Kooning was very much cognizant of the reception of these paintings--that scale was an important consideration of these abstractions. The format contributes to the dynamism of the painting because the brushwork radiates outward from the center so there is a sensation of it being extended into the viewer's space. One seems surrounded by the rhythmic patterning and lushness of the paint. However, de Kooning was determined in his paintings not to engulf the viewer like the large abstractions of Rothko and Newman. He wanted his paintings to feel monumental without resorting to mural-like proportions that can be interpreted as field painting.
Two predecessors of Modern painting come to mind in reference to Untitled: Soutine and Bonnard. De Kooning himself had said: "I've always been crazy about Soutine--all of his paintings. Maybe it's the lushness of the paint. He builds up a surface that looks like a material, like a substance. There's a kind of transfiguration, a certain fleshiness, in his work." (W. de Kooning, Staats and Matthiessin, pp. 70-71 cited in D. Waldman, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1988, p. 136). David Sylvester argued that Soutine's Ceret landscape pictures are pictorial antecedents for the late 1970s paintings. Soutine's landscapes are very similar in appearance to de Kooning's Untitled. They both share the agitated, muscular brushwork, taking cues (direct or indirect) from nature, and an absolute devotion to oil paint. Sylvester also discussed the visual connection between de Kooning and Bonnard, as specifically related to Untitled: "De Kooning may also have learned something from the most painterly of all the great twentieth-century painters, Bonnard. I am thinking of certain works around 1970, for example, the Untitled painting in the Eastman collection ascribed to c. 1969-1972 (see lot 21). Equivocal forms are found in a space with a slow rolling movement and a resemblance to Bonnard's uptilted tabletops They are purely visual and relate to the fleeting quality of sensations, the rapidity of the play between actuality and memory, uncertainty as to the identity of something seen, uncertainty even as to whether something tangible is there where that area of a different color is." (D. Sylvester, p. 24.)
Untitled is one of the few paintings from 1977 still in private hands. The painting's counterpart, North Atlantic Light, is in the Collection of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Untitled VI is in the Menil Collection, Houston and Untitled V is in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.