Lot 12
  • 12

Willem De Kooning

6,000,000 - 8,000,000 USD
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  • Willem de Kooning
  • Untitled II
  • signed on the stretcher
  • oil on canvas
  • 88 x 77 in. 223.5 x 195.6 cm.
  • Executed in 1986.


Xavier Fourcade Gallery, New York
The Artist
Matthew Marks Gallery, New York
John and Frances Bowes, San Francisco (acquired from the above in 1994)
PaceWildenstein Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1998


San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Into a New Museum: Recent Gifts and Other Acquisitions of Contemporary Art Part I, January - June 1995
San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Minneapolis, Walker Art Center; Bonn, Städtisches Kunstmuseum Bonn; Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen; New York, Museum of Modern Art, Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings, The 1980s, October 1995 - April 1997, cat. no. 30, p. 109, illustrated in color and pp. 8-9, illustrated (detail)


Kenneth Baker, "A Vision of Modern Art by Concensus," San Francisco Chronicle, January 18, 1995, pp. E1 and E5 (text)
Amei Wallach, "Strokes of Genius, or Flailings in the Dark?" The New York Times, September 24, 1995, pp. 34-36, illustrated
Janos Gereben, "Which Way is Up? De Kooning Exhibit has Power and Soul," The Merin Independent Journal, October 3, 1995, p. D1, illustrated
Kenneth Baker, "Last Pieces of a Legend's Puzzle," San Francisco Chronicle, October 3, 1995, p. E1, illustrated in color
Catherine Morris, The Essential Willem de Kooning, New York, 1999, p. 107, illustrated in color
Barbara Hess, Willem de Kooning, 1904-1997: Content as a Glimpse, Los Angeles, 2004, p. 88, illustrated in color


This work is in excellent condition. Please contact the Contemporary Art department at 212-606-7254 for the condition report prepared by Terrence Mahon. The canvas is framed in a metal strip frame.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

In 1981, at the apex of a truly spectacular and unprecedented fifty-year career, Willem de Kooning inaugurated a corpus of hauntingly lyrical abstractions that occupied his practice for the remainder of his life. Executed in 1986, Untitled II is paramount among the canvases of this decade for its chromatic vibrancy, compositional dynamism, and bewitching beauty. Selected by Xavier Fourcade for his gallery and later included in the first and only major travelling retrospective to date of the artist’s late work, which originated at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art before travelling to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; the Städtisches Kunstmuseum, Bonn; Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam; and, finally the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the present work has been regarded around the world as a paradigm of de Kooning’s final expression. Executed on a grand scale, and with the finesse of an artist at the height of his aesthetic powers, Untitled II emphatically extolls the supremacy of Willem de Kooning’s inimitable abstract vernacular.

Onto the expansive surface of Untitled II, de Kooning has floated curvilinear ribbons of red and blue pigment. Lending an unmistakable sense of buoyant dynamism to the composition, these sinuous forms course gracefully across the canvas, fluidly weaving in and out of one another like elegant turns of phrase in the artist’s visual poetry. In marked contrast to many of de Kooning’s other 1980s abstractions, the ground of the present work is not starkly white but instead transmits an aura of glowing ethereality in its variance between the subtlety of the blush passages and the vitality of the golden yellow tones. In an homage to his great forebear Henri Matisse, whose late work, specifically his remarkable corpus of cutouts, similarly stages a collapse of the distinction between color and line whilst maintaining the ever-present reference to the human form, de Kooning here achieves what can be considered the final goal of his life-long investigation into the very nature of abstract art. As such, Untitled II resoundingly confirms Larry Berryman’s declaration, made in the same year as the work’s execution: “The paintings of the last three years elucidate a lifetime’s work.” (Larry Berryman, “Willem de Kooning,” Arts Reviews, November 19, 1986, p. 694) Indeed, the artist himself described a sensation of tranquility and confidence felt in the final years of his career: "I feel that I have found myself more, 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 Exh. Cat., Washington, D. C., National Gallery of Art, Willem de Kooning: Paintings, 1994, p. 199) This creative conviction is nowhere more powerfully witnessed than in the assuredly distilled and indelibly resolved composition of Untitled II.

De Kooning’s formidable corpus is among the most difficult of any artist’s to define or trace in a linear fashion, and impossible to reduce to any sort of generalized theme. Throughout his career, beginning with the stylistic revolution enacted by his Woman series in the 1950s, spanning his renowned period of intensely creative escape from urban life to the plush landscape of East Hampton, New York, and ultimately arriving at works such as Untitled II, de Kooning consistently and pointedly reinvented himself, each time developing a fresh aesthetic vision that seemed entirely at odds with what immediately preceded it. It is this circuitous progression that defines the artist’s incomparable and groundbreaking oeuvre. Yet just as essential to his practice was a perpetual re-evaluation and re-visiting of themes and techniques that had worked their way into his art years prior, so that the road map to his career charts a course of smooth progression through artistic exploration rather than a series of ruptures, ultimately arriving at works such as Untitled II. As Gary Garrels described, “In the 1980’s works, the essential procedures and techniques were not changed but simplified, and the vocabulary of forms was retained but clarified.” (Gary Garrels, “Three Toads in the Garden: Line and Form,” in Exh. Cat., San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (and travelling), Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings, the 1980’s, 1996, p. 26) In a conclusive reconciliation of the two predominant leitmotifs of de Kooning’s oeuvre, and exemplary of Gary Garrels’ analysis of the artist’s late work, Untitled II evokes through its organic forms a dual celebration of landscape and the human figure.

Whilst still displaying the unmistakable traces of de Kooning’s remarkable touch and fluid wrist, Untitled II boasts an enlivened spirit and a new freedom in which his innate gifts for line, color, and form remain paramount. The artist’s celebration of line had been ascendant throughout his career and, though de Kooning now further reduced his compositions to a few whiplash swaths, his works maintain their traditional rhythmic character and aesthetic spirit. With simplicity evocative of Piet Mondrian’s late canvases, de Kooning’s sinuous strokes loop about in asymmetrical and elegant formations. While Untitled II maintains the sustained energy and emotion of his earlier work, it encompasses the organic lyricism of Matisse as well as the dynamic equilibrium of Mondrian, reinforcing one of the most vital characteristics of the artist’s oeuvre: his continual insistence on invention, freedom, and risk.