(Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan are the authors of de Kooning: An American Master, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for biography. It has just been reissued in paperback.)
In 1960, De Kooning had every reason to be confident about the future. He was a powerful and stylish figure in the dominant culture of the age-an artist at home in imperial cities. He had just returned to New York after five months in Rome, where he had been celebrated as an American master. Not only had his paintings been exhibited at the Biennale in Venice, but the Isola Tiberina Gallery in Rome had recently mounted an influential show that included work by both Italians and the Abstract Expressionists. Many American writers and artists in the fifties of the time visited or lived in Rome. According to the Italian artist Piero Dorazio, Rome had transplanted Paris as the cultural capital of Europe: "That had been the twenties and thirties. In the fifties, Rome was full of artists. It was like the Parisian café scene." And the Italian artists were eager to party with their famous American colleagues. "There was this myth of American painting," the art dealer Pinio de Martiis said. "Action painting. And this small group. There was a romantic sense of a burned generation. And the drinking. A little like Fitzgerald."
And yet, de Kooning himself appeared increasingly world-weary. Nothing was more telling about his frame of mind in Rome than that, for the first time in years, his life did not center around painting. The truth was that he did not work especially hard there. Although he had arranged to use the studio of the Italian artist Afro Bassaldella [known universally as "Afro"] he mostly spent his days drinking and socializing, caught up in the heightened "la dolce vita" mood of the time. It mattered less that he produced little--for he had often in the past passed through dry periods--than that he appeared to be dabbling rather than struggling. Beginning with the black and white series that culminated in the masterly Excavation of 1950, de Kooning had developed in the late forties and fifties--excavated from within himself--four distinct moods or styles of painting. No other painter of the time had exhibited a comparable energy and variety. Despite his ongoing doubts, the world at large applauded each successive cycle of work. The immigrant from Holland had made America his own. After ten years of unflagging work and partying, however, what remained to be done? Now that America was his settled home, where would he find the space of escape, change, and discovery? He seemed to be losing his sense of urgency, his daily need for the touch of the brush.
This did not change once he arrived back in New York. In his new, unfinished studio on the top floor of 831 Broadway--he had the money, now, to buy a luxurious new loft that dwarfed his old space on Tenth Street--he worked mostly on a small scale, when he worked at all. Only twice in 1960 did he make large-scale works. And Door to the River and Spike's Folly, each a big and luminous painting, actually marked an ending--the close of the artist's imperial or "highway" style of boldly stroked paintings that he had begun in the mid-1950s. Their heavy, declarative brushstrokes had often been compared to highways and aptly so, for de Kooning during this period was constantly traveling back and forth between his New York studio and a rented house in Springs. (He himself never learned to drive a car, but he loved sitting in the passenger seat, studying the highway and glimpsing the passing landscapes.) His highway strokes swept through the picture plane with the bravura of an emperor traveling through his dominions.
As its evocative title suggests, however, Door to the River was not just a "highway" painting but an exit from the highway. It seemed to be steeped in dreams of escape and renewal. De Kooning had always been especially interested in doors and windows. (A decade before, as he was finishing Excavation, he added a small door near the bottom that he regarded as private escape from the picture.) For a restless man returning wearily to New York, a door was naturally a powerful symbol, a rectangle that suggested both an opening and a closing of possibilities. And a river, of course, was an ancient symbol of life and regeneration: Flowing water could evoke change, movement, openness, freedom, fear, and bliss. In the painting, a dark rectangle-door lay within a pastoral burst of yellow and flesh colors. The de Kooning door was characteristically ambiguous. It could represent both joyful release and a stab of black in the heart of life.
During the early 1960s, de Kooning became a man possessed by two contrasting visions of the world: one characterized by despair, the other by hope. On the one hand, he flung himself onto the streets of the city, entering a spectral world of alcoholic bingeing and dissipation that often ended in the gutter. The city he loved was changing around him, and he no longer felt entirely at home. His New York was hot and fervent; now, a more ironic and cool city, which Andy Warhol would soon come to symbolize, was developing around him. The contemporary art world was becoming increasingly remote from his inner life as an artist, even as the scene at the Cedar Tavern--the favorite hangout of his generation--became increasingly feverish. Slumming uptown celebrities and Hollywood stars regularly dropped in. Even among the "old timers," as de Kooning called his friends from the WPA era, the conversation seemed more about the ups and downs of reputation than about painting. Adrift and uncertain, de Kooning began to drink consistently. A haze of alcohol now hung over his days.
But he also began to dream of building a studio-home near the sea--a "loft in the woods"--and leaving New York City for good. He wanted the studio to have a feeling of air, light and space. Something reminiscent, perhaps, of a ship on the sea. He would wash it down every week as you might a factory floor or the deck of a boat. He imagined steel girders and oblique angles. No right angles, no boxy rooms, no walls pressing inward. More important, the glimmer of a new idea about painting was beginning to excite de Kooning. The countryside had already, of course, begun to enter his art: The final grand abstractions of the late fifties had looked eastward, reflecting the light and color of the Long Island seashore. Now, de Kooning started to think a good deal about Courbet, especially about how "concrete" that artist was--"how concrete with reality." Perhaps de Kooning could also, he said, "grab a piece of nature and make it as real as it actually is." That might mean giving up the bold assertions of form--the air of dominating nature--that characterized the highway paintings in favor of something more open and yielding. De Kooning was now willing to be overcome by the landscape.
One of the first important new works to emerge in this period of transition and fresh thinking was the present lot. Like its two large-scale predecessors, Door to the River and Spike's Folly, it was a big painting--80 by 70 inches--with the slightly off-square dimensions that de Kooning favored. And like its predecessors, it was painted in a pastoral palette of yellows and flesh tones. But the brushstrokes that forcefully commanded the space in the earlier highway paintings were now beginning to dissolve and melt into the lush light and open vistas of the seashore. Untitled was the work of a gentler, more contemplative de Kooning. It suggested bodies, beach and glimpse of the sea; it might even have contained another private door near the bottom of the picture. De Kooning had always dreamed of uniting figure and landscape--he often refused to make a distinction between figurative and landscape painting--and the flesh tones in Untitled delightfully evoked a female figure flowing over a radiant beach. (The artist even told Virginia Dwan, after she purchased the painting, that she might consider calling the painting Flesh instead of Untitled.) De Kooning's mood was improving at the time he painted the picture, for his young daughter Lisa had just returned from San Francisco with her mother, Joan Ward, and de Kooning cherished the little girl.
In many respects, Untitled anticipated de Kooning's best-known work from the period just before he left New York for good--Pastorale of 1963. In December of 1962, a retrospective of Arshile Gorky's painting opened at the Museum of Modern Art. The show came at a critical moment for de Kooning. Gorky remained one of his presiding inspirations. In the thirties, Gorky had provided the young de Kooning with an example of what it meant to be an artist, a model of vocation and commitment in an often hostile world. Gorky had been dead for almost fifteen years, but the sight of his paintings--and the memories they must have aroused--once more helped de Kooning find his way. Toward the end of his life, Gorky, despite his success in New York, had left the city to settle in the country. The move was partly responsible for the late flowering in his art. Gorky had abandoned himself to his private Garden, to a transcendent sensual joy in the natural world. The pictures seemed painted for no one but himself-not for the art dealers, not for collectors, not for patrons. They were a private lyric. Gorky's example could only strengthen de Kooning's own resolve to leave the city and find a private renewal in the countryside. He could abandon History with a capital H, letting others chase after Warhol's Pop. Instead, he would live with Arshile in the country.
The retrospective contained a Gorky oil from 1947 called Pastorale, a loosely painted work enlivened by a brilliant chromatic chord of yellow and peach hues. In the winter of 1963, de Kooning painted two oils in the same high key of yellow and peach. Always generous in his acknowledgment of artists he respected, de Kooning called one Pastorale in homage to Gorky and the other Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point. (Louse Point was a spit of land in Springs that de Kooning particularly loved. Earth and sea seemed to mingle and come together there; the Homeric phrase rosy-fingered dawn also evoked the odyssey of an artist-wanderer who moved between land and water.) The paintings marked a further turn away from the grand style of the late fifties. The imperial king of Tenth Street had abdicated. He was a private artist once more.
As the critic and curator Lynne Cooke has suggested, de Kooning's move to the country, foreshadowed in Untitled of 1961, would be a much richer and more radical retreat than the art world of the time recognized. De Kooning's private reverie would soon mark an eccentric advance in a great Western tradition--that of the pastoral--during a period when American society was itself showing a fresh, idealistic concern for the landscape. (De Kooning's pastoral would finally culminate in the abstractions of the mid-to-late seventies). The pastoral tradition was always an essentially urban preoccupation, of course, reflecting a longing for a simpler life outside the city. The pastoral evoked the Garden of Eden; and yet it also inevitably suggested the Fall and worldly corruption as viewers gazed longingly upon a momentary paradise from their vantage point in the actual world. De Kooning was ideally suited to explore this fraught space between joy and corruption. Certainly, he had no intention of creating simply Edenic landscapes ("I'm not a pastoral character. I'm not a-how do you say that?-'country dumpling'") or visions of happiness like those found in Giorgione or, in a modern form, Matisse. In particular, he would never show the figure entirely from outside, the way earlier artists depicted a nude by a river. In his work, the body would fuse with the landscape--and therein lay the dream of a transcendent pastoral unity. But this being de Kooning, there would always be movement and tension. Doubt might still snake through the paint.
De Kooning was not an intellectual painter who changed his style just to make a point or advance a theme. If Pastorale and Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point represented early efforts to renew the tradition of the pastoral, they also emerged from something profoundly personal. In the early sixties, after the forward-moving decade of the fifties, the aging de Kooning began to steep himself in the remembered sensations or "springs" of the past. De Kooning would find on Long Island many visual echoes of his youth in Holland. It would take him more than a decade, a troubled time that one friend called "the hangover years," to develop those springs. Pastorale and Rosy-Ringered Dawn at Louse Point, painted in his Broadway studio, were the last significant works that he would complete in New York City. And in many respects, even as he painted them, he had already left town. Already his brush was working in another light.