Untitled XXXIX is a truly superb exemplar of the unique painterly method de Kooning applied to his compositions of the 1980s. While at first glance the lyrical red, blue, and yellow zones appear to be floating upon a pristine white ground, their indomitable elegance and ethereal lightness was in fact achieved through de Kooning’s judicious application of cool white oil pigment atop a churning surface of chromatic intensity. As such, the graceful organization of hued forms in Untitled XXXIX was revealed by way of excavation as opposed to accumulation, the result being one of profound aesthetic and technical innovation from an artist in the final decades of his prodigious career. Here, the buoyant graceful lines of de Kooning’s abstract calligraphy are utterly sensual, and with his reduced and lyrical palette, nowhere is de Kooning’s grand ability as a colorist more poetically asserted than in these late masterpieces. The cascading lines describe a spatial openness and delicate balance that is freer and utterly confident as de Kooning summons by way of utter creative brilliance a fully resolved composition from an initial outpouring of abstract energies. Describing the artist’s late paintings, Carter Ratcliff observed, “Something extraordinary happens in the 1980s. Dragging a wide metal edge through heavy masses of paint, de Kooning turns scraping into a kind of drawing. A process of subtraction makes an addition, a stately flurry of draftsmanly gestures. De Kooning has always layered and elided his forms. Now he reminds us that he does the same with his methods.” (Carter Ratcliff, “Willem de Kooning and the Question of Style,” in Exh. Cat., Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Willem de Kooning: The North Atlantic Light, 1960-1983, 1983, p. 22)
Whilst still displaying the unmistakable traces of de Kooning’s remarkable touch and fluid wrist, Untitled XXXIX boasts an enlivened spirit and a new freedom in which his innate gifts for line, color, and form remain paramount. The artist’s celebration of line had been ascendant throughout his career and his works maintain their traditional rhythmic character and aesthetic spirit up until the final stages of his career. With simplicity evocative of Piet Mondrian’s late canvases, de Kooning’s sinuous strokes loop about in asymmetrical and elegant formations. While Untitled XXXIX maintains the sustained energy and emotion of his earlier work, it encompasses the organic lyricism of Matisse as well as the dynamic equilibrium of Mondrian, reinforcing one of the most vital characteristics of the artist’s oeuvre: his continual insistence on invention, freedom, and risk. Lending an unmistakable sense of buoyant dynamism to the composition, these winding forms course gracefully across the canvas, fluidly weaving in and out of one another like elegant turns of phrase in the artist’s visual poetry.
In an homage to his great forebear Henri Matisse, whose late work, specifically his remarkable corpus of cutouts, similarly stages a collapse of the distinction between color and line whilst maintaining the ever-present reference to the human form, de Kooning here achieves what can be considered the final goal of his life-long investigation into the very nature of abstract art. Indeed, the artist himself described a sensation of tranquility and confidence felt in the final years of his career: "I feel that I have found myself more, the sense that I have all my strength at my command. ...I am more certain the way I use paint and the brush." (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Willem de Kooning: Paintings, 1994, p. 199) This new balance and clear-eyed confidence gave birth to an explosive creative energy and vigor which culminated in a series of monumental Untitled compositions throughout the 1980s. This creative conviction is nowhere more powerfully witnessed than in the assuredly distilled and indelibly resolved composition of Untitled XXXIX. As seen in the present work, de Kooning’s work is radically simplified and luminous, with dancing rhythms and diaphanous lines that are the ultimate realization and emancipation of de Kooning’s artistic vision. Unrestrained yet deliberate, they dazzle with musical vitality, in bold hues of red, blue, yellow, and green against the startling white that characterized the series.
As Gary Garrels described, “In the 1980’s works, the essential procedures and techniques were not changed but simplified, and the vocabulary of forms was retained but clarified.” (Gary Garrels, “Three Toads in the Garden: Line and Form,” in Exh. Cat., San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (and travelling), Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings, the 1980’s, 1996, p. 26) In a conclusive reconciliation of the two predominant leitmotifs of de Kooning’s oeuvre, and exemplary of Gary Garrels’ analysis of the artist’s late work, Untitled XXXIX evokes through its organic forms a dual celebration of landscape and the human figure, resulting in a picture that is quite simply breathtaking.
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