Lot 38
  • 38

Willem De Kooning

8,000,000 - 12,000,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Willem de Kooning
  • Untitled
  • oil on canvas
  • 54 x 60 in. 137.1 x 152.4 cm.
  • Executed in 1977.


Estate of the Artist
John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco (acquired from the above in 2001)
Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, Inc., New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in April 2002


San Francisco, John Berggruen Gallery, 20th Century Perspectives, March - April 2001

Catalogue Note

“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

"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

Untitled, executed in 1977, encapsulates the force of Willem de Kooning’s masterfully groundbreaking abstract vernacular through a spectacular assault of unrestrained expression. With each visceral swathe, smear, drip and blow, the artist here asserts his total command over his medium, conferring upon the painter’s traditional tools an altogether redefined dynamism. Indeed, with means of execution that remain to this day so compelling and thoroughly captivating, Untitled encapsulates the inherent paradox of de Kooning's aesthetic practice: the artist did not strive for resolution in his works, but instead sought to capture the variable quality of life, all in a rush of tactile pigment that defied the confines 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 the objective and the abstract, the composed and the agitated - all with the storied brilliance of his vibrant color palette and brushwork. Executed during a critical period defined by an explosive outpouring of creativity following de Kooning’s prolonged absence from painting, the present work belongs to an illustrious corpus of large-scale, color-saturated canvases that rank among the finest achievements of his prodigious career. Of this group, Untitled is exceptional for the force of its painterly conviction, its emphatic mark-making and violent flecks of paint, all conveyed in the brilliant hues of an utterly seductive palette. Formerly an artist who famously scrutinized and reworked his canvases extensively, the confidence of the present work’s rapidly generated composition imbues Untitled with an urgency that is still as affecting today as when it was first created almost forty years ago. 

In every decade of his long and illustrious career, de Kooning maintained a firm grip on the structuring artistic philosophy of medium as muse, and the glories of paint exhibited in Untitled are quintessential de Kooning. As his wrist, arm, and body became one with the rhythms of his brush or palette knife, de Kooning enacted a spectacular material incursion onto his canvas surface, resulting in unrestrained expression that encapsulates the full genius of de Kooning’s inimitable aesthetic. The artist’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 and techniques of centuries past. Picasso was also a master at reinvention, and de Kooning proved just as adept at the contradictory role of leader and rebel. After the 1956 death of Jackson Pollock, de Kooning became 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 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 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 was created amidst this epic oceanic environment, and while it remains determinedly and resolutely abstract, it nevertheless communes an essence and memories of contextual experience. The ocean became a part of de Kooning’s daily regime as he became increasingly captivated by the spectacular luminescence of the expansive beaches and the lustrous effect on the sun’s reflections on the water. As he related in a 1972 interview with Harold Rosenberg, his play with light and colors are almost inexpressible: “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.  It was like the reflection of light.  I reflected upon the reflections on the water, like the fishermen do.” (reprinted in Exh. Cat., Basel, Kunstmuseum Basel, De Kooning Paintings, 1960-1980, 2005, p. 152)

The jubilant blues, yellows, and reds of the present work are juxtaposed with quieter passages of soothing white and warm blush 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. 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. The material quality of sculpting was wholly sympathetic with de Kooning’s sensuous approach to oil paint, as eloquently acknowledged in his famous 1950 quote, “Flesh was the reason oil painting was invented.” 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. Within both mediums, de Kooning pressed the antithetical dialogue between improvisation and control, resulting in a gestural tension that animated his surface to the extreme. When sculpting, de Kooning often closed his eyes while working with clay, allowing touch and not sight to dictate the form. In similar fashion, the physical immediacy of Untitled appears virtually to project volume and dimension with the swirling skeins of paint that animate each line and contour of the composition. From 1975 de Kooning surrounded himself with his canvases, each inspiring him to paint another and informing all with the same sense of water, light and sky. Lustrous paint flowed from his brushes, layering color upon color, as forms emerged and submerged within the complex abstraction of de Kooning's imagery. 

De Kooning’s sense of line is of course critical to his entire aesthetic identity, and even during the period when he worked primarily on sculptures from 1969 to 1975, he continued to draw prolifically. But with his return to 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 Untitled, reflecting his bright and open environment. In shimmering light, forms dissolve and reform in a manner deeply akin to de Kooning’s sense of abstraction. 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 de Kooning’s majestic contribution, over a remarkable span of decades, to twentieth century art.