"In the 1980s works, the essential procedures and techniques were not changed but simplified, and the vocabulary of forms was retained but clarified. Particularly in the works of 1983, the results are paintings of an openness and freedom not seen before, paintings that were extraordinarily lyrical, immediately sensual and exhilarating. Of all the paintings of the 1980s, they are the most diaphanous and drawinglike."
Gary Garrels, 'Three Toads in the Garden: Line, Colour and Form' in: Exhibition Catalogue, San Francisco, Museum of Modern Art, Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings, The 1980s, 1996, p. 28
Willem de Kooning's Untitled XIV is a joyously lyrical work, which embodies the ultimate emancipation and refinement of de Kooning's audacious painterly vision, a powerful testament to the creative powers of the mature artist. Never content to settle into a stagnant, signature way of working, in the 1980s during the twilight of his sixty-year career, de Kooning embarked upon a series of monumental Untitled compositions which provided the crowning achievement to his celebrated oeuvre.
Much like the late work of Pablo Picasso or Henri Matisse, de Kooning's late paintings contain the sustained energy and technical finesse of earlier achievements, and return to the grandly lyrical manner of de Kooning's earlier paintings of the late 1930s and early 1940s. In this formative period of de Kooning's oeuvre, the emotive content and softer organic forms of Surrealism coexisted in an uneasy tension with the flattened space of Cubism and geometric constructs akin to Piet Mondrian. De Kooning's resolution of these two opposing influences resulted in his earliest masterpieces, the black and white abstractions, which eliminated colour in favour of a focus on line, painterly application and form. In the paintings of the 1980s, the same sinuous line and intuitive sense of form are evident, but de Kooning's genius as a colourist is equally predominant. Filtered through the experiences and paintings of the intervening decades, most notably the sun and light-filled East Hampton landscapes, the content of these paintings has been radically simplified and illuminated, their composition distilled into pure colour and line.
Having struggled in a battle against severe alcoholism for much of the previous decade, with the help of his ex-wife Elaine from whom he had separated in 1955, de Kooning gave up drink in the 1980s and began to paint with renewed vigour and purpose. This dramatic resurgence of creative activity is due as well to the diligency of de Kooning continually at work on the large, brightly coloured canvases lining his studio. Off his diet of anti-depressants and no longer tormented by violent mood swings and long periods of lethargy, the grace and fertile optimism which swept into de Kooning's new work marked a full break with the heavier impasto and sober palette of the previous decade.
The gradual reduction of his energetic painterly expression had allowed de Kooning to re-channel and concentrate his considerable creative energies into a subtler, more evocative construction of poetic form. In Untitled XIV, through the grand physicality of his brushstrokes and restricted palette, the artist reaches a synthesis of sign and background that becomes almost tangible. Onto the soft white background, as tall and wide as the span of de Kooning's outstretched arms, the artist has floated a series of lines and planes that show the influence of Matisse's abstract cut-outs, with their use of unadulterated colours and contour lines. The buoyant drawing and the abstract calligraphy are utterly sensual and aptly described in Carter Ratcliff's observations of de Kooning's technique in his later paintings. "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 Willem de Kooning: The North Atlantic Light, 1960-1983, Amsterdam 1983, p. 22)
The picture plane in Untitled XIV envelops the viewer with its tactile surface and lyrical, gestural lines, creating an image of visual plenitude, and showing an artist that has reached a serene relationship between his body, the paint and the canvas. The touchstone of de Kooning's art throughout his career is his line, the unmistakable traces of his supple and fluid wrist. Whether this line is the thin tracings of graphite, charcoal or the pooled drippings of sapolin enamel and oil or the wide broad swathes of the late paintings, de Kooning's rhythmic character is constant. In more conceptual terms, Gary Garrels also identifies a continuity in de Kooning's aesthetic spirit as well that is notable in the later paintings: "The last decade of de Kooning's painting clarifies something of the vital character of his art: his insistence on invention, freedom, and risk. These are the same qualities that had brought renown to him as an Abstract Expressionist. In the 1980s de Kooning renewed their meaning as he renewed his vision of his own art. The old existentialist issues that have surrounded de Kooning's work now appear all the more relevant, transformed as the paintings of the 1980s are from the paintings of the 1940s and 1950s." (Gary Garrels, in Exhibition Catalogue, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings, 1980s, 1995, p. 34)
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