Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
Mr. and Mrs. Robert C. Scull, New York
Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York October 18, 1973, Collection of Robert C. Scull, lot 7
Private collection, New York
C & M Arts, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, Nine American Painters, 1960, cat. no. 2, illustrated (as Untitled)
Sarasota, Florida, John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, Sidney Janis Painters, April - May 1961, cat. no. 16
Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh International Exhibtion of Contemporary Painting and Sculpture, October 1961 - January 1962, cat. no. 206, illustrated
New York, Allan Stone Gallery, 1964
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970, 1969, no. 65, p. 140, illustrated
Willem de Kooning was the most important artist of the Abstract Expressionist movement. He is the most written about; received the most accolades and enjoyed the most exhibitions and has the largest and most varied body of work. As both artist and personality, he bridged the gap between the Apollonian reserve of Arshile Gorky, the naturalist grandeur of Franz Kline and the Dionysian abandon of Jackson Pollock. As such, de Kooning was seen to spearhead the germinating sensibilities of ‘Action Painting’, and history now records him as that School’s chief architect and most important protagonist. His art demonstrates the astounding achievements of the New York School, right into the very last decade of the Twentieth Century. The viewer can see de Kooning constantly develop his pictorial syntax, spanning the range of modernity’s central style. Spike’s Folly I, from 1959, perches at a pivotal moment in the development of de Kooning’s art and of his reputation as a significant contributor the dynamic of twentieth-century painting. The product of a wholly abstract vocabulary, the work embraces the lessons of history painting’s multi-figure compositions; the tradition of the pastoral landscape and a newer, edgier artistic dialect of urbanism. Spike’s Folly I is a painting rich with incident and joyous color. It summarizes past achievements, hints at traces of the figure and yet is prescient of future abstractions. This work stands as one of de Kooning’s great paintings from the late 1950’s.
Like Pablo Picasso, de Kooning’s vast body of work is often divided into distinct periods. It is important to consider these divisions prior to the execution of Spike’s Folly I because such a trajectory informs the painting’s means of construction and its means of meaning. Formally, what prevails throughout de Kooning’s entire oeuvre is this extraordinary oscillation between abstraction and the figure; between all-over and focused space; between painterly passages that are frantic and those that are serene; between, ultimately, opacity and invisibility. Thematically and strategically, the work has a number of common threads that anchor the innate heterogeneity of the overall body of work. The oeuvre points to two persistent motifs (a woman and the landscape) and suggests two certain moods (irritation and humor).
The early figures are hybrids of de Kooning’s interest in artists like Picasso, Joan Miró and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, as seen in paintings such as Queen of Hearts (1943-46, Washington D.C., Hirshhorn Museum of Art). These figures slowly give way to de Kooning’s famous black-and-white paintings that he showed at his first solo exhibition in 1948 at the Egan Gallery in New York; works such as Orestes (1947, Private Collection). Here, Cubism becomes flattened into a network of lines; and this network is given impetus and urgency to suggest movement, implying that the space is being mobilized by the artist for some alternative purpose. Space begins to escape the lines, and thus the possibility of describing them; they are made clearly ambiguous in juxtaposition, and de Kooning’s muted palette aids and fuels this ambiguity. This series informs the later flattened jigsaw spaces one finds in works such as Excavation (1950, Chicago, The Art Institute), where a brusque shorthand version of Cubism prevails. A preference for landscapes with figures shows the artist interested in both subjects. The early 1950’s sees the artist begin to privilege the figure again, urging the confrontational Kali-like female form of his famous Woman series to the front of the picture plane, as if she transmogrifies before our very eyes out of the Cubistic architecture of the painted backgrounds. This is most powerfully displayed in The Museum of Modern Art in New York’s version, Woman I, from 1950-52. The artist creates systems that are developed by means of a formal and metaphorical multivalence of parts; puns between ideas of form and content. These female Saturns then give way to (or finally become) their backgrounds, and the urban cityscapes of layered abstract forms, paintings such as Police Gazette, 1955, Private Collection) or Gotham News (1955, Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery) become both background and foreground, sending the entire pictorial field into flux. The painting seems formed out of other paintings, with no single point of departure or vanishing point privileged. Rather, an interlocking mesh of colors and a stark delineation of endlessly ebbing and flowing forms dominate the canvas.
It is from these urban landscapes of the mid 1950’s that we arrive at the period of the execution of Spike’s Folly I. From around 1957 until 1963, one sees de Kooning’s brushwork now amplified and looser and more open, his attention to light more profound, and his compositions share a kinship with those of Kline’s. Indeed, works such as Spike’s Folly I and Suburb in Havana (1958, Private Collection), reflect Kline’s large, rugged but precise shapes and his bold calligraphy. De Kooning incorporated powerful architectonic elements into his works, but retained a sense of the intimate gesture that is absent in Kline’s raucous paintings. The frenzied proliferation of stroke, form and plane has now here been reduced, lending Spike’s Folly I a relative restraint and clarity. Nonetheless, there is joy, playfulness and ribaldry among this composition’s attributes. As Henry Geldzahler wrote of de Kooning’s paintings at this time, they are "… packed with shapes, allusions, actions and counteractions, they pile ambiguity on ambiguity; sometimes, it would seem, they are painted at lightning speed, at others in a more relaxed contour-loving gesture." (Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Willem de Kooning: Abstract Landscapes, 1955-1963, 1987, n.p.) Here, passages of golden yellow, bright Royal blue and earthy brown, contoured only by the physical edges of the paint, have been applied expansively. This broad simplification makes conspicuous the manner of de Kooning’s paint application and the resultant textural complexities of the medium of oil paint. The movement, conflict and resolution, seen in previous periods in isolation, now work in concert on the flat surface of the canvas. Shifting penetrations into an illusory depth are made by these areas of color that advance and recede according to value, overlap or shading. The simplification and limitation of the number of the artist’s gestures, which served to expand the picture plane, as well an adoption of a specifically lighter palette that tended toward yellow (a color, according to Henri Matisse, that was extremely difficult to use in large expanses), is related to de Kooning’s gradual and eventual move from New York City to the countryside in Long Island.
Even though de Kooning was 44 years old when he had his first solo exhibition, he quickly became a popular and commercially successful artist. Following his 1956 exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery, fame and financial security came to the artist, bringing with it greater freedom to paint, but also disrupting his privacy. Consequently, de Kooning began to escape the city; firstly by spending his summers in East Hampton; eventually, by moving wholesale to Springs in 1961 and building his studio there which would be completed in 1963. Spike’s Folly I belongs to a celebrated group of abstract landscapes, executed primarily between 1957 and 1960, which are sometimes referred to as the Parkway Landscapes since the titles refer to highways and sites the artist viewed during his trips out of the city, such as Montauk Highway (1958, Los Angeles, County Museum of Art). The artist had said that "I like New York City … but I love to go out in a car … I’m just crazy about going over the roads and the highways" (see the Dia collections page on their website with reference to de Kooning’s Merritt Parkway). Indeed, Thomas Hess wrote of de Kooning that he "… saw the highway as an enormous connection, with an environment of its own. It moves through the ‘left-over’ spaces of the city … then it emerges into the neatly flowing suburbs." (Thomas B. Hess, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1969, p. 103).
The landscape of Long Island greatly affected de Kooning. The open sky, endless sea and sand and flat potato fields is translated by the artist in both his forms and palette. Color became dominant in keeping with the landscape, and the picture planes were flatter, demonstrating that abstraction and landscape could co-exist in a dynamic relationship. Diane Waldman notes that compositions such as Spike’s Folly I begin "… to blur the distinction between the vertical structure of the city and the horizontal configuration of the country" (Diane Waldman, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1988, p. 105). Hess notes the changes in de Kooning’s pictorial vocabulary: "… shapes are reduced to wide, smooth areas … yellow makes a heavy accent … Forms became larger, more simple, and continuous; colors became fewer in number, cleaner, more intense, and more concentrated on primary contrasts." (Hess, Op. Cit., pp. 102-103).
The artist’s technique, brushwork and use of color is dazzling in Spike’s Folly I. The selected palette and frontal configuration flattens the composition to the picture plane by emphasizing the texture of pigment and the surface of the canvas. Thin, translucent colors are used as vibrant glazes against thick, opaque sections, lending the painted surface a Baroque luxuriousness. Broad sweeps of brown, blue and gold pigment cut across wedges of underground in an omni-directional fashion. A vortex of color is thus created, with the canvas recording energetic movements of the artist’s hand. This is further enlivened by a meandering blue line that cuts into the painted planes, breaking them down, adding a sense of fluidity and breaking movement to the composition and acting as a graphic contrapposto to the tessellation of vibrant color. The frenetic sprays of blue paint, differing direction of the muscular brushwork and liberal dripping also suggests that the artist perhaps approached the canvas from different sides, with the artist turning the canvas at some point, as indicated in the photograph of de Kooning and Thomas Hess in the artist’s studio, with the unfinished Spike’s Folly I behind them, turned ninety degrees clockwise. Certainly, the ground seems to have been applied much earlier than the painted surface: one can clearly see a difference between the more muted colors and diffident, regulated handling of the ground with the exuberance, of both color and handling, of the immediate surface. Everything seems to have been executed in a frenzy, at lightning speed, with an extraordinary bravura. Yet this could not be further from the truth. A deliberate and controlling logic of constant revision and adjustment prevailed, with each connective brush stroke placed on the canvas absolutely as de Kooning intended. For an artist as prolific as de Kooning, it is interesting to note that he executed only five paintings in 1959. As Richard Shiff notes, "A canvas that looked "fast" might have been labored over for months. This is true of paintings of the Montauk Highway type; their outermost skin, seemingly "fast" and assured, records only a single day’s work. Yet every "erasure" becomes part of an integrated template, either remaining visible … or guiding the forms above it, so that the formal benefits of a day’s labor won’t be lost." (Richard Shiff, "de Kooning controlling de Kooning" in Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art [and traveling], Willem de Kooning: Tracing the Figure, 2002 - 2003, p. 155). This is evident if one looks at the top right edge of the canvas. A deep ruby tone glows through the paint; a tiny vignette left over from, no doubt, a much larger painted element earlier in the life of the painting, and yet one that works perfectly in situ. As if the color fragment was born there.
In this sense, the landscape we see before us; de Kooning’s image of that certain place in East Hampton, is a presentation, not a representation. His drips, splatters, sprays and broad swathes of paint are, as Waldman notes, "… less about the experience of nature or natural phenomena than they are about the nature of painting … Color, shape and tactility as they function in relation to the picture plane are his central concerns", (Waldman, Op. Cit., p. 112).
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