The late paintings of the 1980s by Willem de Kooning are a powerful testament to the creative powers of the mature artist. Much like the late work of Pablo Picasso or Henri Matisse, de Kooning's paintings contain the sustained energy and technical finesse of earlier achievements. However, the content of these paintings has been radically reduced and simplified, its composition distilled into pure color and line. This notion is evident in the present painting, Untitled III, where primary colors of blue, red, and yellow weave, cut, and bridge across a subtly tinted white plane. Its ribbon-like lines create a tangle of forms that suggest either the traces of movement of a human body or the living vitality of nature, such as the ebb and flow of the ocean tide. Because of its highly abstract composition, the allusions to external imagery are secondary to the commanding presence of the glowing canvas with flowing lines of paint.
Scholars and curators have observed at least two major influences that de Kooning had incorporated in his late paintings. One is the art of Matisse. Throughout most of his career, de Kooning had taken up the challenge set up by Picasso and Cubism, and had used it as a measure of achievement and artistic excellence. However in the 1980s, he actively studied the work of Matisse. Tom Ferrara, one of his studio assistants at the time, recalls that de Kooning often spoke of Matisse's 1909 La Danse in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art. The undulating lines of the circular dance have been assimilated into de Kooning's late canvases. Moreover, the spare lines of de Kooning's late paintings resemble Matisse's abstract cutouts, with their use of pure color and contour lines. Another influence is de Kooning's own paintings and drawings of the 1940s. The fluidity of his compositions underscores his techniques of multiple addition and elimination, where elements are added and later scraped smooth, only to be used as the surface for further revision. This retrospective glance at his own work allowed de Kooning to refine his previous techniques.
Gary Garrels has observed the connection to the 1940s in the late work, he observes "De Kooning's work, at its core, is about neither style nor myth, but more profoundly incites an exploration of transformation and change. The last decade of de Kooning's painting clarifies something of the vital character of his art: the insistence on invention, freedom, risk. These are the same qualities that had brought renown to him as an Abstract Expressionist. In the 1980s de Kooning renewed their meaning as he renewed his vision of his own art. The old existentialist issues that have surrounded de Kooning's work now appear all the more relevant, transformed as the paintings of the 1980s are from the paintings of the 1940s and 1950s" (G. Garrels, "Three Roads in the Garden: Line, Color, and Form" in Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings, 1980s, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1995, p. 34).
Untitled III is an image of visual plentitude, with undulating lines that pulsate towards the edge of the picture. De Kooning's habitual practice of shifting the orientation of his painting also adds to the sense of the painting as an expanse of pictorial space rather than a conventional picture. It is a supreme example of what de Kooning sought to do in his late work, to refine, simplify, and elevate what he already knew how to do.
Fig. 1 Edvard Lieber, Willem de Kooning: Reflections in the Studio, 2000, c Edvard Lieber 2001
Fig. 2 Edvard Lieber, Willem de Kooning: Reflections in the Studio, 2000, c Edvard Lieber 2001, with Untitled III in the lower left corner