"De Kooning’s paintings of the Seventies are an annihilation of distance. The close-ups are about closeness, a consuming closeness. These paintings are crystallizations of the experience and amazement of having body and mind dissolve into another who is all delight.” David Sylvester, About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-1996, London, 2001, pp. 349-350
Willem de Kooning’s greatest paintings capture the inherent paradox of his aesthetic practice, amply demonstrated by the bold Untitled from circa 1975-1977. De Kooning did not strive for resolution in his works; he sought instead to capture the variable quality of life, all in a rush of tactile paint that defied the limits of the canvas just as it shattered the boundary between figuration and abstraction. In Untitled, the master painter’s slippery, limpid forms rendered in his soft, pliable pigment oscillate between objective art and abstract art, composed and agitated - all with the storied brilliance of his vibrant color palette and lush range of brushwork. In every decade of his long and illustrious career, de Kooning kept a firm grip on his medium as muse, and the glories of paint exhibited in Untitled are quintessential de Kooning, whose wrist, arm and body became one with the rhythms of his brush or palette knife. This spectacular assault of unrestrained expression encapsulates the full genius of de Kooning’s abstract vernacular. Painted in the years when de Kooning sensationally returned to painting after a long absence, this work belongs to an explosive outpouring of creativity that produced an illustrious series of large-scale, color-saturated canvases that rank among the finest achievements of his prodigious career.
De Kooning’s independent spirit infuses Untitled and its sister paintings of the late 1970s with a heroic quality of individualism rather than conformism. He was at heart a pluralist who reveled in the multi-thematic, and like Pablo Picasso before him, de Kooning was rebellious and forged new paths, without eschewing the forms of expression of centuries past. Picasso was also a master at reinvention, and de Kooning proved just as adept at the contradictory role of master and rebel. After the 1956 death of Jackson Pollock, de Kooning was the undisputed leader of Action Painting and carried the Abstract Expressionist banner well into the next generation. Yet his eventual withdrawal from New York City to the environs of Long Island in the early 1960s was a reflection of his move away from the communal artistic existence that had fostered his breakthrough years of Woman I in 1950-52. De Kooning now sought reflective contemplation rather than the dissonant atmosphere of Manhattan, and found it in the tranquil and lush environment of his beloved Long Island, which resonated for him with memories of his native Holland. He had spent time in East Hampton as early as 1959, following the lead of Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky who had already escaped the city in favor of the countryside. By summer 1961, he had purchased a small house in Springs, East Hampton and soon found property nearby for a studio. In 1963 he settled there entirely, immersed in the sunlit coastal landscape that suffused his work with light and space.
Untitled’s jubilant brushstrokes of yellow, pink, red and bright green are juxtaposed with quieter passages of white, salmon and flesh tones that proclaim de Kooning’s great gifts as a colorist, equal to Henri Matisse, the grand master of sublime color whose retrospective in New York in 1927 was a pivotal experience for de Kooning. His love for the spectacular light and its reflections on the water were a revelation and a reinvigoration to de Kooning, and while Untitled remains determinedly abstract, it nevertheless communicates an essence of contextual experience. As he related in 1972 to Harold Rosenberg, “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.” The colors were “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.” (Harold Rosenberg, “Interview with Willem de Kooning," Artnews 71, no. 5, September 1972, p. 57) White is a predominant color in this corpus of late 1970s paintings, lending a sense of brilliant light and sharp-edged contrast to the saturated jewel tones in Untitled. The painting can be read as either landscape or seascape with the greys and white as either frothy sea spray or sand dune beaches with green sea grasses, punctuated by hints of sun-dappled flesh.
The tactile process and properties of oil paint were a constant for de Kooning, and his sense of touch infused his great foray into sculpture that immediately preceded the paintings of the late 1970s. Picasso, who had worked in sculptural form as early as the first decade of the Twentieth Century, also championed the relationship between the two media when he famously stated that “sculpture is the best comment a painter can make on painting.” In like fashion, de Kooning’s physical reveling in pliable wet clay was transfiguring for him, leading to a renewed celebration of oil painting in works such as Untitled. De Kooning also greatly admired the younger artist, Francis Bacon, whom he had met for dinner in London in 1968 in the company of the critic David Sylvester. Both artists were greatly influenced by the vigorously textured brushwork of Chaim Soutine who remarkably infused paint with a sense of physical flesh. Bacon’s allegiance to the human form as his arena for creative exploration would also ring true to de Kooning’s sensual approach to oil, as eloquently acknowledged in his famous 1950 quote, “Flesh was the reason oil painting was invented.” It is therefore not surprising that Untitled exhibits de Kooning’s new found emphasis on the process of painting. While a heavily impastoed surface is a signature characteristic of de Kooning’s work of the 1950s, one of the revelations of the 1970s work, as in Untitled, is the sophistication and variety of paint handling. Focusing on the texture of his surface, de Kooning thinned his 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 Untitled through gesture, scraping and movement, ultimately creating a varied topography of undulating and shimmering color.
De Kooning’s revitalization in painting, begun in 1975, was startling for a man who had first burst upon the art world stage in the 1940s. Famous for scrutinizing and reworking a single painting, he now surrounded himself with canvases, each inspiring the other and all informed with the same sense of improvisational urgency. Later describing this period, de Kooning recalled, “I couldn’t miss. It’s a nice feeling. It’s strange. It’s like a man at a gambling table [who] feels that he can’t lose.” (the artist cited in Judith Wolfe, “Glimpses of a Master,” in Exh. Cat., East Hampton, Guild Hall Museum, Willem de Kooning: Works from 1951-1981, 1981, p. 15) In the autumn of 1975 de Kooning premiered the first of these works with his dealer, Xavier Fourcade, followed by another exhibition in 1977, both greeted with laudatory reviews. As cited by John Elderfield in the catalogue for the 2011 retrospective of de Kooning’s work, David Sylvester acknowledged 1977 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) Untitled is a truly exceptional embodiment of the emphatic mark-making and sheer force of painterly conviction that defines the majestic contribution to twentieth century art made by de Kooning over a remarkable span of decades.
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