Exceeding the confines of a vast canvas through its spectacular assault of unrestrained expression and brilliant color, Untitled XXII from 1977 encapsulates the full force of Willem de Kooning’s abstract vernacular. Executed at a critical moment in his career, when the artist had since abandoned Manhattan for the natural landscape of Springs, Long Island, de Kooning here reaches his formal climax in the painting’s rich color palette and staggering variation of expressionist brushwork. Demonstrative of a renewed focus on painting, Untitled XXII belongs to an explosive outpouring of creativity that produced an illustrious body of large-scale, color-drenched canvases that rank among the most iconic achievements of de Kooning’s decades-long career. Famous for his relentless working and reworking of his canvases in the 1950s, de Kooning demonstrates a confidence and urgency within the composition of Untitled XXII that is as affecting today as it was when it was first exhibited in 1978. Similarly scaled abstract masterpieces from 1977 belong to esteemed private collectors and significant museums worldwide, including The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and The Menil Collection in Houston. For its sheer force of painterly conviction, tactile physicality of its muscular gesture, incandescent lyricism, and eye-wateringly dazzling colors, Untitled XXII ranks among the most irresistible paintings of de Kooning’s output.
Among the greatest heroes of Abstract Expressionism in New York, de Kooning spent the early part of his career in Manhattan, ensconcing himself in such haunts as Cedar Tavern and keeping company with peers Jackson Pollock, Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, and Arshile Gorky. Like Pollock and Gorky, de Kooning became exhausted by the onslaught of noise and tension inherent to life in the city and began spending his summers in East Hampton as early as 1959, escaping the urban commotion in favor of the rural quietude. By 1961, de Kooning had purchased a small house in Springs, East Hampton, and by 1963, he had moved entirely out of New York, immersing himself instead in the light-filled and ataractic environment of Long Island. Although Untitled XXII remains resolutely abstract, it nevertheless evokes the essence, memories, and experience of de Kooning’s oceanic and peaceful surroundings. The glimmer of sunlight on the ocean, rush of waves crashing onto the sand, and salt infusing the air – all encapsulated by the present work – captivated and seduced de Kooning, reminding him of his home in Holland. In an interview with Harold Rosenberg, de Kooning effused: “When the light hits the ocean there is a kind of grey light on the water… 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 that grey. Then I got a few more colors, because someone might be there, or a rowboat or something happening. I did very well with that. 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[…]” (The artist quoted in Harold Rosenberg, “Interview with Willem de Kooning,” ARTnews 71, September 1972, p. 58)
Untitled XXII envelops the viewer in a riot of brilliant hues, undulating collisions of line and form, and the unmistakable aura of chaos and tranquility inherent to the natural world. Large swaths of stonewashed grey dominate the center of Untitled XXII, creating a voluminous structure around which de Kooning’s fury of color swirls, dips, and pitches across the canvas. Whiplashes of royal blue, curves of olive green, and dashes of red crash together in crags and blurs of vigorous spontaneity. Bright yellow patches call to mind a sun-drenched Edenic beach, against which navy thrusts collide with swaggering force. The feverish brushstrokes of light greens, dark indigo, and yellow juxtapose and meld in twists of paint that create new colors: robin’s egg blue, teal and porcelain. Wider pulls of paint and thick impasto create a maelstrom of distinct brushstrokes alongside swiped passages of diaphanous color. The upper register of the painting presents dashes and drips of black atop more opaque layers of scraped blue, white, and yellow paint – a seemingly offhand effect that belies de Kooning’s unequivocal painterly supremacy and aesthetic prowess. This juxtaposition of clear details against hazier patches forces the viewer to reconsider how he or she ‘reads’ an abstract painting, demanding a continuous optical readjustment and refocus to integrate the sharp edges of flecked paint against sublime opacity. Harry F. Gaugh writes: “In a sense, the world outside the paintings with its bounty of forms is irrelevant – not expendable, to be sure, but a realm of natural phenomena apart from yet corresponding to the paintings themselves. De Kooning’s late [1970s] works, like those from earlier periods, are not abstractions from nature, nor variations on it. At best they are responses to it, not consciously dictated but intuitively articulated. And more than before, the late paintings are a return to nature, not only in theme but through the searching act of painting, whereby de Kooning repeatedly questions his own relationship to nature as well as testing again and again his inventive powers.” (Harry F. Gaugh, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1983, p. 104) Bespeaking a deep engagement with the natural world, Untitled XXII invokes the raucous, untamed beauty of blinding sunlight dancing upon the Atlantic Ocean, the jubilant yellow churns swelling into the aquatic forms like so many cresting waves.
Excepting Barnett Newman, de Kooning is the only Abstract Expressionist who delved into sculpture, reveling in the physicality of pliable, wet clay; this endeavor into a more tactile three-dimensional medium led to a renewed celebration of oil painting in the late 1970s. Experiments with clay and bronze inspired de Kooning to more adventurous pursuits in oil, amplifying the texture of his paint by thinning it with water, kerosene, benzene or safflower oil, whipping it into a “fluffy consistency.” (Susan F. Lake, Willem de Kooning: The Artist’s Materials, Los Angeles, 2010, p. 65) This more pliable consistency dried differently than pure oil, engendering a smooth mixing of colors and varying physical effects. Using unorthodox methods of applying and removing paint, de Kooning troweled, scraped, brushed, knifed, and pulled pigment across the canvas, defining the composition through decisive gesture and assertive reworking. Both in sculpture and the painting that followed, de Kooning pressed the antithetical dialogue between improvisation and control, resulting in a tension that animated his surfaces to the extreme. Describing this immediacy and visual barrage, Gaugh writes: “De Kooning’s upfront physicality, the malleability of his forms and their spatial flux, exceed optical sensation… the artist shoves us into the water, trips us into the underbrush, heaves us into the sky. And, regardless of natural locale, he backs us up against the wall of his studio. Far from plein-air paintings, these canvases are strenuous kinetic exercises conditioned at times by de Kooning’s sculpture making.” (Ibid., p. 105)
In every decade of his long and illustrious career, de Kooning kept a firm grip on his medium as muse, and the unbridled majesty and glory of paint exhibited in Untitled XXII are no exception. De Kooning’s revitalization in painting in the late 1970s also announced a departure from his iconic Woman paintings; briefly abandoning the figure, de Kooning instead turned to nature and focused on his Long Island environs. De Kooning’s sense of line is of course critical to his entire aesthetic identity, and even during the period when he worked on sculptures from 1969 to 1975, he continued to draw prolifically. But with his renewed focus on the plastic form of paint, de Kooning’s line is subsumed, as his strokes broaden and flatten. In place of line, both color and light serve as the organizing principles in this abstraction, reflecting his bright and open environment. De Kooning was always an outstanding colorist, whether using a palette of black and white in the abstractions of the early 1940s or the pastel hues and acidic, jarring tones of his Woman paintings and Urban Landscapes of the 1950s. But with his move to Long Island, de Kooning responded intimately not only to his oceanic surroundings, but to the elements of light and air. Describing the profound inspiration and visceral pleasure he found in the luminous landscape of his East Hampton surroundings, de Kooning reflects: “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.” (The artist quoted in Harold Rosenberg, “Interview with Willem de Kooning,” ARTnews 71, September 1972, p. 57)
Maintaining the unmistakable traces of de Kooning’s remarkable touch and fluid wrist, the lushness of color and pictorial immediacy of the present work testify to the artist’s continued admiration of the European Post-Impressionists, whose visionary investigation of color and light played a defining role in shaping de Kooning’s practice. White emerges as a dominant color in de Kooning’s body of late 1970s paintings, lending a sense of ethereality and lightness to offset the saturated jewel-tones of Untitled XXII; indeed, the jubilant brushstrokes of yellow, undulations of blue, cascades of crimson, and sprays of green proclaim de Kooning’s prowess as colorist, equal to Henri Matisse, whose retrospective in New York in 1972 provided a revelatory and pivotal experience for the artist. Rendered with the full force of de Kooning’s inimitable painterly lexicon and sure compositional command, Untitled XXII represents nothing less than the inescapable and incontrovertible apex of the artist’s mature output.
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