"You know the real world, this so-called real world, is just something you put up with, like everybody else. I'm in my element when I am a little bit out of this world: then I'm in the real world--I'm on the beam. Because when I'm falling, I'm doing all right; when I'm slipping, I say, hey, this is interesting! It's when I'm standing upright that it bothers me; I'm not doing so good; I'm stiff. As a matter of fact, I'm really slipping most of the time, into that glimpse. I'm like a slipping glimpser."
-Willem de Kooning
Composed with a myriad of captivating techniques and roiled with remarkable texture, Willem de Kooning's Untitled VIII is a mesmerizing work of endless fascination. Part of a remarkable series of large oils that de Kooning painted in 1977, prominent critic, David Sylvester, has characterized this year of the artists output as, "a year that was possibly, no less than 1948, say, the annus mirabilis of De Kooning's career" (D. Sylvester, 'Art: When body, mind and paint dissolve,' in The Independent, London, 15 February 1995). More so, in his definitive text for the New York Museum of Modern Art's highly acclaimed de Kooning retrospective, John Elderfield wrote specifically of Untitled VIII stating, "The brushstrokes throughout Untitled VIII embody the velocity of de Kooning's 'slippery medium,' while still possessing the voluminousness of the figure, expressed by the bulbous contours throughout the right side of the composition" (J. Elderfield, de Kooning: A Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, 2011, p. 434). It is in that that this magnificent painting joins the ranks of the artist's most celebrated work.
These paintings of the mid-1970s form the culmination of much that de Kooning had attempted in the past but never resolved. When he had first moved to the Springs on Long Island de Kooning had enjoyed the unique landscape of the area, and this in many ways had entered and informed his work. Now in the mid-'70s he became increasingly preoccupied with his immediate environment, its light and topography as well as, in particular, the wateriness of the landscape around Louse Point. "When I moved into this house," de Kooning observed in 1976, "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" (De Kooning quoted in M. Prather, Willem de Kooning Paintings, exh. cat. Washington, D.C., 1994, p. 197). Like Monet at Giverny, de Kooning looked to his immediate world and his own art to create a series of monumental abstract landscapes that were among the most exuberant paintings of his career, achieving a grand synthesis of the motifs that had formed his art since he left New York: the figure and the East Hampton Landscape.
"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 in Willem de Kooning: Paintings, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., p. 198). Accordingly, paintings such as Untitled VIII are among the most exuberant and expressive of de Kooning's career. With its ribbons and swatches of electric color, glowing whites, and bursts of animated brushwork, Untitled VIII emerges as a reawakening and a rediscovery of the painterly process--which the artist had abandoned during the early 1970s--and evokes the intense emotions he had felt the first time he began putting paint to canvas in a manner that was intrinsically his own. Captivated by the shimmering surface of the water and its power to reflect, merge, and contort elements from the surrounding land and sky, de Kooning sought to immerse himself in the constantly shifting abstract face of color and form of the luminous watery landscape that surrounded him in East Hampton. Meditating upon the fluctuating surface of the ocean, de Kooning found inspiration during his daily bike rides to Louse Point--a seen that undoubtedly must have reminded the aging artist of his youth in Rotterdam. "I wanted to get in touch with nature," the artist would confess during this time. "Not painting scenes from nature, but to get a feeling of that light that was very appealing to me, here particularly. I was always very much interested in water" (W. de Kooning, quoted in H. Rosenberg, "Interview with Willem de Kooning,"ArtNews, no. 71, September 1972). Indeed, with its rhythmic, undulating, and fluid brushwork, Untitled VIII recalls the oceanic flux that entranced its maker.
With its combination of cool whites, bright blues, and vibrant flashes of red, yellow, and orange, Untitled VIII recalls the countryside of de Kooning's treasured Hamptons. Through his explosive array of surface technique--his various speeds of brushwork, scraping, and his sumptuous layering of paint, which coalesce onto its roiled surface into an striking display of painterly rises and ridges--de Kooning has transformed the blue sky, green fields, and foaming waves of the Atlantic into his own gestural splendor. Breaking away from traditional perspective, the artist's dense, allover composition forces his gestures to the fore of the picture plane like the reflections of the water that de Kooning so admired. Pointing to the physical response evoked by a captivating terrain or a far-reaching expedition, the critic Dore Ashton has stated, "De Kooning masterfully directs the viewer on a journey through many climates," she wrote in a magazine article the following year (D. Ashton, quoted in J. Elderfield (ed.), de Kooning: A Retrospective, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011, p. 419).
Mercurial and topographical, with its infinite array of forms and textures, Untitled VIII stands out from the classic mold of grand landscapes, breaking free of the perspectival tradition in favor of broad planes arranged on a loose grid, coalescing to conjure an evenly weighted, aerial view that affords no primary point of entry. A natural painter, de Kooning, unlike many of his contemporaries who took their cue from synthetic cubism, was crucially influenced by the movements more painterly appearance--analytical cubism. In fact, a clear line of historical development runs from late Cézanne to the analytical cubism of Braque and Picasso, straight through Mondrian's own cubistic renderings of the natural world, directly into de Kooning's breakthrough abstractions of the 1940s, where, through his own artistic progression, de Kooning, at his crux, delves into the sumptuousness of Chaïm Soutine's schmaltzy portraits and landscapes and arrives full force at his heroic, microcosmic landscapes of the late 1970s.
Alluding to Cézanne's tightly entwined networking of surface and form, gesture and line, de Kooning, in an interview with Harold Rosenberg asserted that he was "really much more influenced by Cézanne than by the Cubists" (W. de Kooning, quoted in R. Shiff, Between Sense and de Kooning, London, 2011, p. 98). Despite the sea-like freedom and apparent effortlessness in Untitled VIII, de Kooning's best compositions of the mid-1970s were, in truth, carefully organized and composed. Resting upon an informal and unbinding grid, the artist attested of his carefully patterned brushstrokes, "The way I do it, it's not like Cubism, it's like Cézannism, almost" (W. de Kooning, quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swan, De Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2004, p. 562). Adopting the phrase 'fitting-in' to characterize the fluid lattice structure within which he worked, boundaries, intersections and outlines begin to appear, disappear and intermingle indiscriminately, and yet all are inextricably linked to the innate logic of the composition as a complete, cohesive entity.
Engaging in a practice of transfiguration through his ability to synthesize the fleshiness of the figure into quivering ribbons of paint that abstractly evoke the sublimity of the environment, Untitled VIII--with its dynamic brushwork--recalls the lushness of Chaïm Soutine's brushwork and surpasses the modern master's ability to translate the corpulence of meat into nature. "I've always been crazy about Soutine--all of his paintings," de Kooning affirmed in 1977 of his key influences. "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. I remember when I first saw the Soutines in the Barnes Collection. The Matisses had a light of their own, but the Soutines had a glow that came from within the paintings--it was another kind of light" (D. Sylvester, About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-1996, London, 2001, p. 338). Further emphasizing this relationship David Sylvester has stated, "Soutine, in the landscapes of his Céret period, had used broad strokes of thick, juicy paint to put flesh on the bones of analytical cubist compositions, or of the Cézannes that had inspired these. And there is no doubt that those paintings had a crucial influence on de Kooning" (W. de Kooning quoted in D. Sylvester, About Modern Art. op. cit., p. 338).
While remaining completely abstract, momentary hints of natural or figurative forms emerge within Untitled VIII in the form of thrilling glimpses or fleeting visual flashes of figures or objects. Enthralled by the new fluid freedom he had discovered in these looser--but no less complex-canvases, de Kooning remarked that in his journey to imitate the natural world's continuous flux, he had the "feeling of being on the other side of nature" (W. de Kooning, quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swan, De Kooning: An American Master, New York 2005, p. 563). For him, everything existed in a continuous flow of action, with his forms slipping back into the fluid logic of practice. Regarding the female figure that had so often emerged with such vitality in his earlier paintings, de Kooning now found that "I could sustain the figure all the time because it could change all the time. She could get almost upside down, or not be there, or come back again, she could be any size" (W. de Kooning, quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swan, De Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2005, p. 563). In Untitled VIII, the robust evocation of the figure to the right of the composition, as pointed out by John Elderfield, finally, as with its maker, seems to find solitude at sea.
"It came, with the artist in his mid-seventies," described David Sylvester in perfect summation of de Kooning's 1977 canvases, "as the climax of a period in which the paintings--most of them landscapes of the body, some purely macrocosmic landscapes--with their massively congested, deeply 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. They belong with the paintings made at the same age by artists such as Monet and Renoir and Bonnard and, of course, Titian. The paint is freely, loosely, messily handled, sometimes with fingers rather than a brush or knife. Blurred forms loom up, often in extreme close-up, simultaneously adumbrated and dissolved by the paint. In terms of technique, there's a reversion to infantile habits of smearing muck. In terms of attitude, there's an infantile easy certainty that others have seen the world as they have. The incandescence in these products of ripe wisdom and second childhood, of this marvelous marriage of experience and innocence, is not only an incandescence of matter but often of erotic feeling De Kooning's paintings of the Seventies are an annihilation of distance. The close-ups are about closeness, a consuming closeness. These paintings are crystallizations of the experience and amazement of having body and mind dissolve into another who is all delight" (D. Sylvester, op. cit.).