Willem de Kooning’s paintings from 1977 have long been regarded as among the finest within his extensive oeuvre. Prized for capturing the essence of the sea, the sand and the surf, the works from this pinnacle year are among de Kooning’s most dynamically expressive representations of nature and the Long Island landscape he loved. De Kooning began spending summers in East Hampton in 1959 and frequently considered giving up his Broadway loft entirely, following the lead of his contemporaries Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky who had already escaped the urban commotion of Manhattan in favor of the countryside. By summer 1961, de Kooning had purchased a small house in Springs, East Hampton and the following winter, had found a piece of property nearby that was perfect for a studio. In 1963 he had moved entirely out of New York and immersed himself in the light-filled, calming atmosphere and scenic coastal landscape that so closely evoked memories of his native Holland. As Bernhard Mendes Bürgi notes, “the year 1977 in particular, which saw the production of ….the sum total of thirty large-formats, stunningly illustrates how de Kooning abandoned himself to his work with fewer reservations, with greater ardor and yet more control than ever before” (Exh. Cat., Basel, Kunstmuseum, De Kooning Paintings, 1960-1980, 2005, p.26).
The stellar Untitled XXX (1977) from this consequential year is one of the most sublime representations of de Kooning’s masterful authorship over paint, gesture and inventive, unconventional color palette. As Bürgi remarks, “If the sublime coloring in the pastorals of the 1960s suggests a rococo atmosphere, one is seduced by the prolific production of the year 1977 into speaking of baroque escalation, midsummer profusion” (Ibid., p. 28). The outbreak of this passionate energy is translated onto de Kooning’s canvas in Untitled XXX through the vigor of its execution and the brilliant strokes, splashes and layers of blue, white, and orange. Focusing his energy on the quality of paint application and the texture of his surface, de Kooning thinned his oil paint with water, adding kerosene, benzene or safflower oil as binding agents. Using unorthodox methods of applying and removing paint with spatulas and knives, de Kooning defined his composition through gesture, energy and movement. In Untitled XXX, the sensuous blue and white tones that ripple over the surface of the work are glossy and lavishly applied strokes of paint that recall ocean waves and the quality of the sea, luminously reflecting the sky and clouds under shifting light conditions. De Kooning spoke of his sentiments towards the effect of atmosphere on his work in a 1972 interview with Harold Rosenberg. “I even carried it to the extent that when I came here I made the color of sand- a big pot of paint that was the color of sand. As if I picked up sand and mixed it. And the grey-green grass, the beach grass, and the ocean was all kind of steely grey most of the time. When the light hits the ocean there is a kind of a grey light on the water”. (reprinted in Exh. Cat., Basel, p. 152)
The paintings of 1975-1977 seem to be the most direct references to liquidity and flow in the artist’s oeuvre. De Kooning emphasizes texture, allowing a variety of planes of paint to coalesce in and out of each other across the canvas. The impastoed surface is a signature characteristic of de Kooning’s work of the 1950s, however one of the revelations of de Kooning’s later work, such as Untitled XXX, is the utter sophistication and variety of de Kooning’s paint handling. The quieter passages of paint, created by scraping and smearing across fields of varying color pigment, foreshadow the beauty of Gerhard Richter’s smeared Abstrakte Bild of the 1980s. In the present painting, de Kooning employed this subtle technique in passages of blue paint at the center of the composition, highlighted with threads of white and yellow that mix together as he pulls the paint across the surface.
De Kooning, much like the Impressionists, absorbed his surrounding atmosphere, and sought to translate these intangible elements onto his canvases. As de Kooning recalls in the 1972 interview with Harold Rosenberg, his play with light and colors are almost inexpressible: “Indescribable tones, almost. I started working with them and insisted that they would give me the kind of light I wanted. One was lighting up the grass. That became that kind of green. One was lighting up the water. That became grey. …I got into painting in the atmosphere I wanted to be in. It was like the reflection of light. I reflected upon the reflections on the water, like the fishermen do.” (reprinted in Exh. Cat., Basel, 152) De Kooning was also an admirer of Soutine for the richness of his muscular brush strokes, and the critic David Sylvester argued that Soutine’s Ceret landscape pictures are pictorial antecedents for the late 1970s paintings.
Collectively regarded as ‘The North Atlantic Light’ period, the paintings of the late 1960s and 1970s have been the subject of numerous exhibitions worldwide. In 1978, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum dedicated a show to the 70s works titled Willem de Kooning in East Hampton, and in 1978-79, the St. Louis Art Museum and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati chose to devote an exhibition titled De Kooning, 1969-78 solely to the period of the 1970s. More recently in 2005, the Kunstmuseum Basel curated De Kooning. Paintings 1960-1980, where the title for the essay on the 1970s works clearly expresses the overall sentiment: “Culmination 1975-80: The Open Energy Principle”. As Klaus Kertess concludes, “If not quite a God-like Proteus, Willem de Kooning is, like him, a master of a liquid realm who is gifted with prophecy. Like Proteus, de Kooning and his painting have proven all but impossible to tie down long enough to get them to yield a final conclusion”. (Exh. cat. New York, Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, Inc., Willem de Kooning, 1990, n.p., introduction)
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