With delicacy and finesse, ribbons of color infuse the translucent whiteness of Willem de Kooning’s majestic canvas, Untitled VI. These rhythmic chromatic bands navigate themselves into arcs and twists, enfolding and abutting in graceful asymmetry. A circumscribed figurative shape appears in the left portion of the canvas, filled with translucent golden yellow. These positive and negative spaces mirror a central curving shape that appears in Henri Matisse’s Luxe, Calme et Volupté of 1904. As if pulling Matisse’s lines from their function as contour surrounding his Neo-Impressionist, divisionist rendering, de Kooning succeeds in recreating the quiet calm and voluptuousness of the Fauve master. Using the high-pitched prismatic colors with which Matisse rendered his view, de Kooning’s own ‘nudes’ in landscape suggests more than mere affinity with the earlier work. It is as if the red-lined contour in the center right of the canvas restates the standing central rounded torso in Matisse’s earlier work, where a woman holds her hair overhead to dry in the warming sun. The motif of nature is further extended in de Kooning’s dispersed linearity, where ribbons of primaries radiate from a central axis in splendid growth reminiscent of the Matisse’s La Gerbe, in which line, color, and shape trace an infinitely extensible iterative design of nature. An idyll of sorts, Untitled VI is part of a sequence of nature-based paintings created in the latter half of the 1980s. And while the artist moved to Springs, East Hampton ostensibly to become “entangled” in its underbrush, it seems here in Untitled VI that de Kooning is detangling—opening up the pictorial organization to wisps of color ribbons, draping and forming images in a flattened Cubist space.
Nearing the end of de Kooning’s output, Untitled VI takes on a new freedom and lightness, evocative of Matisse, an artist with whom de Kooning clearly identified with in his last years. Having long admired Matisse for both his early paintings and late paper cutouts, de Kooning’s late paintings reflect his predecessor’s undulating lines and bold, sharply defined forms that illustrate both figure and landscape, as illustrated in Matisse’s masterful cutout La Gerbe from 1953. “Lately I’ve been thinking that it would be nice to be influenced by Matisse,” de Kooning said in 1980. “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” (W. de Kooning, quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swann, de Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2004, p. 589).
Weighted and interlocked, de Kooning’s renewed interest in line was reminiscent of the “fitting in” of shapes in his black paintings dating from 1948. Even as the shapes resonate with work made decades before, de Kooning’s Untitled VI has opened unto an extensible field where light and dark contrast is now rendered with color. In his earlier paintings, distinctions between surface and depth in which he slides between figurative drawing and abstraction, reinforce the sense of three-dimensional space. However, by the mid-1980s, spatial depth is narrowed, and ribbons and jointures tend to be structured within a shallow space. The nearly square format in which all four corners seem tacked down by pictorial incident encourage a relative symmetrical composition, stabilized by four filled-in shapes interlaced with flowing curvilinear designs.
Two years before Untitled VI was made, de Kooning began a series of what the curator and art historian John Elderfield titled “White Paintings” (J. Elderfield, de Kooning: a Retrospective,Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011, p. 460). These works are characterized by the predominance of a white surface on which de Kooning has layered strands, ribbons, and bands of prismatic color, tracing charcoal under-drawing or applied with a linear brush. A loose application of paint frustrates dimension, drawing the images closer to the surface and flattening space. Two years later, the surface would be purged of painterly markings. Lines are clean, the white pristine. It is as if de Kooning now desired to foreground composition, to emphasize its motility in relation to the surface upon which it flows. “Design is made to seem mobile in its relationship to the pictorial support, and therefore to seem motivated in that relationship” (J. Elderfield, ibid., p. 463). The landscaped, Arcadian tranquility of paintings like Untitled VI—quiet, calm, poised—seem to allegorize nature without specifically representing it through filling out contours and modeling space. By 1985, de Kooning had taken out recollections of the roiling viscocity of earlier years and created a homogenous surface of close-valued primary colors activated by white space. Having moved away from Cubist space, de Kooning offers in Untitled VI fluid and floating images even as they invite their reconstruction as figures. Like Cézanne, Matisse, Pollock, and Gorky, line and color serve to spur the figural imagination and leave traces or impressions not only of memory, but also of the hand of among the greatest artists of Western modernism.