Rendered with the full genius of de Kooning’s abstract vernacular, the exuberantly impastoed layers of lush pigment which swell and break across Untitled VI correspond to the illustrious, color-saturated surfaces of his celebrated paintings of the late 1970s. In their mesmerizing vibrancy and fluid grace, the swirling forms of the present work invoke the sublime canvases of Henri Matisse, whose visionary investigation of color and light proved to be a pivotal and formative influence upon de Kooning; emphatically proclaiming both artist's extraordinary gifts as colorists, Untitled VI is particularly evocative of the brilliant, color-soaked landscape of Arcadia depicted in Matisse’s revered Fauvist masterpiece, Le Bonheur de Vivre of 1905-06. The newfound gestural exuberance and extraordinary corporeality of de Kooning’s finest canvases from this period, exemplified in the glistening topography of Untitled VI, stem from the artist’s reinvigoration of painting in 1975, which followed more than six years of intense engagement with the medium of clay. The influence of de Kooning’s work in a three-dimensional medium is wholly sympathetic with his sensuous approach to oil paint in the present work: in both mediums, de Kooning pressed the antithetical dialogue between improvisation and control, resulting in a gestural tension that animated his surface to the extreme. The overlapping stratum of pigment in the present work create a sense of spatial depth, juxtaposing saturated swaths of pomegranate red with slender rivulets of creamy ivory in a total celebration of color. A signature characteristic of 1950s Abstract Expressionism—and of de Kooning in particular—the diligently built up strata of paint layers in the present work is a particular revelation of the remarkable sophistication and variety of de Kooning’s paint handling in his late masterworks. Describing the sensorial brilliance of the paintings of this period, one scholar reflects: “They came, with the artist in his mid-seventies, as the climax of a period in which the paintings...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." (David Sylvester, About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-1996, London, 2001, pp. 349-350) Exemplifying the acute physical immediacy of de Kooning’s masterworks from the late 1970s and 1980s, Untitled VI is utterly all-compassing, the thick whorls of vibrant paint surging in and around each other to crash against the canvas in triumphant defiance of two-dimensional containment.
Executed in 1980, the date of Untitled VI situates the present work at a distinct moment of transition in de Kooning’s aesthetic evolution: in as much as it corresponds to the ebullient brushwork of the 1970s paintings, the unmistakable elegance of the sinuous, curving forms also presages the gestural fluidity of his subsequent large-scale paintings of the 1980s. Describing the distinct brilliance of the artist’s last decade, scholar Carter Ratcliff observes, “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) While the expansive surface of Untitled VI maintains the sumptuous impasto of the artist’s earlier work, the sinuous forms seek a heightened calligraphic elegance, de Kooning’s painterly genius imbuing the cascading forms with a rhythmic grace less prevalent in the turbulent canvases of the 1970s. Foreshadowing the spatial openness and lyrical contours of such 1981 masterworks as Pirate (Untitled II), in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Untitled III, in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C, the organization of forms in Untitled VI is revealed by way of both excavation and accumulation; summoning the sure command of painterly motion which belies an artist at the virtuosic height of his prodigious career, de Kooning applies, shifts, scrapes, and works the lush pigment to create a fully resolved composition from an initial outpouring of abstract energies. Describing the creative conviction which lies behind the profound visual power of the present work, de Kooning reflected: "I feel that I have found myself more in 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 Din Peters, "Willem de Kooning: Paintings 1960-1982," Studio International 196 (August 1983), p. 4)
Maintaining the unmistakable traces of de Kooning’s remarkable touch and fluid wrist, Untitled VI boasts an enlivened spirit and a new freedom in which his innate gifts for line, color, and form remain paramount. Nowhere is de Kooning’s grand ability as a colorist more poetically asserted than in the buoyant, saturated forms which flow and eddy across the surface of the present work, and which de Kooning would proceed to dramatically intensify and streamline in his works of the later 1980s. Amongst the earliest articulations of this transformation, the forms of Untitled VI remain unrestrained yet unmistakably deliberate, the bold strokes of luminous color dazzling with a chromatic vitality virtually unrivaled within the artist’s late corpus. With this vibrancy of palette, coupled with the genius of paint handling and sure command of compositional form, Untitled VI emphatically reinforces one of the most vital characteristics of de Kooning’s prodigious and celebrated oeuvre: his continual, unrelenting insistence upon exploration, freedom, and growth.
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