One of the few canvases that Willem de Kooning painted in 1979, Untitled I displays the accomplished composition and painterly dexterity that singled out the artist as one of the pre-eminent painters of the 20th century. The broad sweeps of liquescent color that traverse the surface displays the virtuosity that distinguished de Kooning’s celebrated works from 1977 (a year described by David Sylvester as the artist’s annus mirabilis), while delicate trails of underpainting prophesy the forms that would drive his practice for the next decade. By the time Untitled I was painted, the artist was one of the few remaining members of the generation of painters that defined Abstract Expressionism, yet his sense of bravado and inventiveness remained undiminished. Throughout the late 1970s, de Kooning continued to push the boundaries of painting forward, a journey that would ultimately culminate in the graceful ribbons of color that would become a major characteristic of his paintings from the 1980 onwards. Untitled I marks a crucial point of this transition, a point where the vestiges of figuration finally dissolve into glorious abstraction, all depicted in the luscious impasto of de Kooning’s rich and highly active painted surface.
In Untitled I, the artist offers up condensed passages of high-keyed color which sit alongside areas of rambunctious brushwork resulting in a dramatic tableau of color and form. The composition is anchored by these passages of fiery red, verdant green, and warm golden yellows giving a presence and weight to the assembled forms. These amorphic forms are a further distillation of the figures and landscapes that populated de Kooning’s arresting paintings from 1977, a series of triumphal paintings acclaimed both for their vitality, and also their ability to conflate figuration and abstraction into one coherent whole. These opaque swathes of translucent paint occur where light and dark striations settle together to form new and unique combinations. Sometimes this the result of paint being laid down ‘wet-on-wet,’ other times they are the consequence of de Kooning laying paint, and then removing it, by scraping of the excess pigment with a taper’s knife.
These new compositional forms invigorated and rejuvenated de Kooning’s canvases and signaled that, despite his advancing age, he was far from done with exploring the expressive possibilities of paint. More than in his early paintings, in his canvases from the late 1970s, the artist began to bring together his brushstrokes into broader passages of color. This was partly the result of his increased use of his taper’s knife to flatten out and expand the areas of pigment, but also his decision to bundle and ‘stack’ of elements together into a single block. In Untitled I in particular, this can be seen in the upper and lower right quadrants, where the artist’s careful manipulation of his painterly surface can been witnessed at first hand. John Elderfield, curator of the most recent retrospective of the artist’s work organized by the Museum of Modern Art, wrote that “The banded brushstrokes in these canvases are often crisper and usually broader than the freely mobile, linear brushstrokes of the mid-1970s paintings. Nonetheless, de Kooning’s displacement of them is still based on ‘a fitting-in,’ as he called it, of the parts so that they interweave across the surface. ‘Fitting-in,’ [de Kooning] said, was “where modern art came from’ in the work of Cézanne and in Cubism, adding ‘The way I do it, it’s not like Cubism, it’s like Cézannism’” (J. Elderfield, De Kooning: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011, p. 447).
De Kooning’s luscious, painterly abstractions are part of the continuum that the artist began in the 1950s, when he shocked the art world with his highly-charged images of women. Not only was the introduction of the figure back into a medium that had increasingly been dominated by gestural abstraction, shocking enough, the highly visceral rendering of the female form was at odds with anything that had gone before. The painting which began this series, the 1950-1952 Woman I (now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York), has been lauded by the eminent critic and art historian John Elderfield as “one of the most disturbing and storied paintings in American Art” (M. Stevens & A. Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2004, p. 309).
By the mid-1950s, the striking figures that had commanded de Kooning’s compositions had begun to dissolve, as the artist increased the looseness of his painterly structures and opened up his canvases in his search for a more expansive sense of painterly space. Paintings such as February and Palisade (both 1957), were among the most abstracted he had ever painted and laid the groundwork for what became known as his “abstracted parkway landscapes,” such as Merritt Parkway (1959). These paintings were distinguished by their large passages of color, their loose brushstrokes, and the speed at which de Kooning would pull together all the elements of their heavily painted surface. The rapidity at which the artist worked meant that traces of the drips and splatters were left visible, outward displays of the speed at which he worked “I’m not trying to be a virtuoso,” he said, “but I have to do it fast” (W. de Kooning, quoted by J. Elderfield, op. cit., p. 318).
By the time Untitled I was painted in 1979, Willem de Kooning was already seventy-five years old, and he had outlived nearly all of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries—Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline among them—by at least a decade. Relatively quietly he continued to push his painterly practice resulting in some of the most complex and intense paintings of the latter part of his career. In October 1977, de Kooning debuted a series of large-scale paintings at the Xavier Fourcade which, in his review for Art International, Carter Ratcliff wrote “[this is] a dazzling show, all the more so because de Kooning still exhibits excesses which are—all things considered—outrageous” (Op. cit., p. 399). As a result of this critically acclaimed show, David Sylvester declared 1977 to be the annus mirabilis of de Kooning’s career. He professed that “the paintings…with their massively congested, luminous color, their contrasts between flowing and broken forms, attain at their best a total painterliness in which marks and image coalesce completely and every inch of the canvas quivers with teeming energy” (D. Sylvester, op. cit., p. 430).
This luminosity was due, in part, to de Kooning’s move from Manhattan to Long Island in the early 1960s and the opening up of a whole new world of possibilities for the artist. Escaping the claustrophobic urban environment for the more bucolic surroundings of Springs, resulted in an opening up of the painterly surface, the light, open spaces and abundance of trees spurning de Kooning’s creative veracity. His proximity to the ocean also reminded him of his homeland in Holland, a land which had left behind as a young adult. “There is something about being in touch with the sea that makes me feel good,” the artist would recall, “it is the source where most of my painting comes from” (W. de Kooning, quoted by M. Stevens and A. Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, 2004, pp. 563-564). Of all the canvases that the artist painted that year, Untitled I displays this sense of openness in the most clear and apparent way. This is reflected not only in the large uncluttered passages of color (particularly the verdant green of the lower left quadrant), but also in the openness, sense of space and depth created by the sweeps of pale pigments that occur through the composition.
The curator and art historian Jack Cowart observed that the period immediately preceding Untitled I dates marked the beginning of a new, exhilarating period in de Kooning’s creative life. It was a moment when he began to produce “forcefully composed paintings with ideas of less frontal or variously posed figures in a well-defined landscape space” (J. Cowart, “De Kooning Today,” de Kooning 1969 – 78, Gallery of At, University of Northern Iowa, 1978, p. 15). De Kooning said he was “happy to see that grass is green…. Content is a glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash….” (W. de Kooning, “Content is a Glimpse…” rpt. Willem de Kooning, Pittsburgh International Series, op. cit, p. 24). As such, Untitled I offers an encounter with one of the great masters of twentieth-century art, a window into his relationship with nature, with the land and sea as he transcribed it simply by brushing wet paint into wet paint across the surface of his canvas.