David Sylvester, About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-1996, London, 2001, pp. 34
A stirring testament to Willem de Kooning’s remarkable mastery of painterly expression, Untitled of 1976-77 proclaims the triumph of the visual over the sensory, engulfing the viewer in a glorious tumult of light, sound, touch, and color. Created in the years when de Kooning announced an entirely novel approach to abstraction, this work belongs to an explosive outpouring of creativity that produced an illustrious series of large-scale, color-saturated canvases which rank among the finest achievements of his prodigious career. Indeed, upon viewing these paintings, David Sylvester acknowledged 1976 as the “annus mirabilis of de Kooning’s career,” in which “the paintings… with their massively congested, 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 canvas quivers with teeming energy.” (David Sylvester, “Art: When Body, Mind and Paint Dissolve,” The Independent, February 15, 1995) In these spectacular paintings, de Kooning’s unrestrained abstraction collapses the distinction between the optical and the tactile, carrying the genre of landscape painting to a new plane of sensory rapture. Rendered with the full genius of de Kooning’s abstract vernacular, Untitled communes the essence of the artist’s contextual experience with a poignant loveliness rivaling that of the greatest landscapes of the Twentieth Century. Documented alongside the artist in a series of portraits photographed in de Kooning's Long Island studio by renowned photographers such as Arnold Newman, the present work clearly represented for the artist a triumph from from this critical period of his career.
The exquisite beauty of Untitled is a clear expression of the inspiration de Kooning found in the natural splendor of his coastal environs during these years. Although de Kooning established his permanent home and studio in East Hampton in 1963, he was struck anew by its beauty in the 1970s, remarking “When I moved into this house, 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.” (The artist, translated from Dutch, in Exh. Cat., Washington D.C., National Gallery, Willem de Kooning: Paintings, 1994, p. 197) Inspired by this fresh vision, de Kooning’s paintings became intimately concerned with his surroundings: “I wanted to get in touch with nature. Not painting scenes from nature, but to get a feeling of that light that was very appealing to me, here particularly … I got into painting in the atmosphere I wanted to be in.” (Harold Rosenberg, “Interview with Willem de Kooning,” ArtNews 71, No. 5, September 1972, p. 57) Powerfully echoing this sentiment, Untitled captures the heady atmospheric effects of East Hampton with a breathtaking specificity. Thick passages of jubilant yellow and ardent red blossom across the canvas, powerfully summoning the radiant heat of the summer sun upon fragrant seaside blooms; these glistening hues are punctuated by gestural splashes of textural white pigment that recall the foamy crest and rhythmic sound of ocean waves upon the beach. The small patches of sultry, shadowy green evoke de Kooning’s own descriptions of his home: “The hills around my place are covered with scrub [oak], little trees, that only last about fifty, sixty years. They die, then grow up again. So the hills look pretty much now as they did centuries ago.” (the artist quoted in Richard Shiff, “Water and Lipstick: de Kooning in Transition,” in Exh. Cat., Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art, Willem de Kooning: Painting, 1994, p. 62) If the smokestack greys and cool industrial blues of Woman I recall the frenzied matrix of the city, the vibrant reds, greens, and yellows of Untitled are a moving homage to the fertile splendor of the Atlantic coast.
While the animated vigor of the artist's earlier Montauk series testifies to de Kooning’s mastery of abstraction throughout the 1960s, the paintings of the 1970s thrum with a new and powerful physical immediacy. The gestural abandon and striking tactility of these works, exemplified in the glistening surface of Untitled, stem from de Kooning’s reinvigoration of painting in 1975, which followed more than six years of intense engagement with the medium of clay. Throughout the 1970s, de Kooning amplified the texture of his paintings by thinning oil paint with water and adding kerosene, benzene or safflower oil as a binding agent to thicken his paint to a clay-like viscosity. In the riotous surface of Untitled, areas of pliable oil paint have been smeared, scraped, and spattered to create a luscious all-over impasto that recalls the lifelike immediacy of de Kooning’s fleshy bronzes. The physicality of these works imbues pigment and canvas with an enthralling vigor and animation: “It is breathtaking to see the traces of the brush racing across the canvas at breakneck speed, groping, raw and sublime, and uniting or overlapping within the space of the canvas. They almost seem to have lost control, driven by an inner dynamic, slobbering, smearing, smudging, spilling, crusted, and spattering, veering away from the whole of the picture. And yet the picture whole, the whole of the painting, is unmistakably present.” (Bernhard Mendes Bürgi in Exh. Cat., Basel, Kunstmuseum Basel, De Kooning: Paintings 1960-1980, 2005, p. 26) Liberated by his exploration of sculpture, de Kooning returned to painting with a gestural abandon and textural animation that engulfs the viewer as powerfully as the tide, crashing against the canvas in triumphant defiance of two-dimensional containment.
Uniting painterly bravura and sculptural physicality to richly capture the sundrenched lushness of East Hampton, Untitled evokes an emotional poignancy that rivals the iconic landscapes of de Kooning's Impressionist forebears. The artist’s confidence in his craft is clear in the gestural strokes of pigment that splash across the canvas, laid down with the bold certainty that accompanies true mastery. Light, sound and scent beat across every square-inch of Untitled with an ineffable rhythm, enveloping the viewer in the heady, salty air of East Hampton. A potent hybrid of specificity and abstraction, Untitled brings to mind the words of Jean-Louis Vaudoyer when, upon viewing Monet’s Nymphéas, he remarked: "None of the earlier series…can, in our opinion, compare with these fabulous Water Landscapes, which are holding spring captive in the Durand-Ruel Gallery. Water that is pale blue and dark blue, water like liquid gold, treacherous green water reflects the sky and the banks of the pond and among the reflections pale water lilies and bright water lilies open and flourish. Here, more than ever before, painting approached music and poetry. There is in these paintings an inner beauty that is both plastic and ideal." (Jean-Louis Vaudoyer cited in La Chronique des Arts et de la Curiosité, May 15, 1909, p. 159, translated from French) Typifying the brilliance of de Kooning’s annus mirabilis, Untitled intertwines muse and medium in a harmonic paean to Arcadia. Reflecting upon this sentiment, de Kooning remarked, "There is a time when you just take a walk...you walk in your own landscape....It has an innocence that is kind of a grand feeling....Somehow I have the feeling that old man Monet might have felt like that, just simple in front of things, or old man Cézanne too....I really understand them now." (the artist cited in Robert Storr, “A Painter’s Testament: De Kooning in the Eighties,” MoMA Magazine, Winter/Spring 1997, n.p.) Standing before Untitled, the viewer is engulfed in colorful abstraction as, like blooms opening in the sun, the full breadth of de Kooning’s mastery freely unfurls across the canvas.
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