Lot 15
  • 15

Willem De Kooning

25,000,000 - 35,000,000 USD
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  • Willem de Kooning
  • Untitled XXI
  • Signed de Kooning on the reverse
  • Oil on canvas
  • 80 by 70 in.
  • 203.2 by 177.8 cm
  • Painted in 1976. Please note that in the print catalogue for this sale, this lot appears as number 15T.


Xavier Fourcade, Inc., New York 

James Corcoran Gallery, Los Angeles

Acquired from the above by A. Alfred Taubman in October 1977


Palm Beach, Florida, Norton Gallery, November 28, 1977 - May 9, 1979 (on loan)

New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 20th Century American Art: Highlights of the Permanent Collection, May - December 1983


Please contact the Contemporary Art Department at (212) 606-7254 for the condition report for this lot.
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

“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).

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. With the unparalleled Untitled XXI of 1976, the artist reached his formal climax in the clear brilliance of the painting’s electric color palette and the ripe opulence of his brushwork. Through each visceral swathe, smear, drip and blow, the artist here asserts his total mastery of his medium. Thick passages of jubilant yellow and intense red convene with rich, buttery sections of blue and white, creating the impression of breaking ocean waves akin to the artist’s beloved coastal environment in Long Island. Areas of pliable oil paint have here been smeared, scraped, and spattered to create a luscious all-over impasto that roils with an inner cyclonic tempest. Like a Turner seascape, the textural turbulence of de Kooning’s painting catches the viewer in the throes of a whirlwind, waves crashing against the sky with powerful velocity. One cannot help but be absorbed in the fantasy of the painting, consumed by every sensory dimension ensnared in its abstract forms. Light, sound and scent beat across every square-inch of Untitled XXI with an ineffable rhythm: “It is breathtaking to see the traces of the brush racing across the canvas at breakneck speed, groping, raw and sublime, and uniting or overlapping within the space of the canvas. They almost seem to have lost control, driven by an inner dynamic, slobbering, smearing, smudging, spilling, crusted, and spattering, veering away from the whole of the picture. And yet the picture whole, the whole of the painting, is unmistakably present… Such a candid commitment to process, to emergence and inevitable passing, makes this life of ceaseless movement in and through painting essentially heroic and dauntless...” (Bernhard Mendes Bürgi in exhibition catalogue, Kunstmuseum Basel, De Kooning: Paintings 1960-1980, 2005, p. 26). Held in the Taubman Collection for almost four decades and unseen by the public since 1983, this occasion marks the first appearance of Untitled XXI in over a third of a century.

Willem de Kooning’s greatest paintings capture the inherent paradox of his aesthetic practice, amply demonstrated by the bold Untitled XXI from 1976. In Untitled XXI, the master painter’s slippery, limpid forms rendered in his soft, pliable pigment oscillate between objective art and abstract art, composed and agitated. During these years, de Kooning amplified the texture of his paintings by thinning oil paint with water, and adding kerosene, benzene or safflower oil as a binding agent. With these adjustments to his material, the medium of paint was thickened and transformed with clay-like viscosity, evoking the fleshy figural bronzes that had previously occupied his practice. From 1969 de Kooning devoted himself primarily to sculpture, producing clay and bronze figures in his first foray into three-dimensional art. 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 XXI. 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 Chaïm 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 paint, as eloquently acknowledged in his famous 1950 quote, “Flesh was the reason oil painting was invented.” 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 XXI appears virtually to project off the picture plane and comprises a remarkably sculptural landscape of paint material. In Untitled XXI, the layers of dense, viscous paint attain a sculptural quality, evident in the ridges and curves of impasto that cover the picture. Like Twombly’s esteemed group of Baroque works, de Kooning’s extravagant painting here reaches an erotic climax—his own wild abandon is visible in his brushwork, teeming with a sensual energy in the volume of pigment and impassioned palette. Moreover, the luminous surface is achieved by the artist’s practice of first covering the surface in a layer of lead white paint, which he would then sand until the canvas reached near translucency. 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. Thick, lustrous paint flowed from his brushes, layering color upon color, as forms emerged and submerged in the textural paint surface.

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 XXI 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 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. In the spring of 1975, with the arrival of de Kooning’s seventh decade, the artist erupted in an outbreak of passionate energy and creative inspiration. Abandoning the variations on the human figure that he had occupied himself with for years, this moment marked the dawn of a new series of spectacularly breathtaking monumental abstractions. 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 quoted in Judith Wolfe, “Glimpses of a Master,” in exhibition catalogue, 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 1976 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 XXI 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.

De Kooning’s independent spirit infuses Untitled XXI 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 XXI’s jubilant brushstrokes of yellow, blue, red and bright green are juxtaposed with quieter passages of white and grey 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 XXI 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 XXI. 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. Using unorthodox methods of applying and removing paint with spatulas and knives, de Kooning defined his composition through gesture, energy and movement, ultimately creating a varied topography of undulating and shimmering color. Formerly an artist who famously scrutinized and reworked his canvases extensively, the confidence of the present work’s rapidly generated composition imbues Untitled XXI with an urgency that is still as affecting today as when it was first created almost forty years ago. Whilst still displaying the unmistakable traces of de Kooning’s remarkable touch and fluid wrist, Untitled XXI boasts an enlivened spirit and a new freedom in which his innate gifts for line, color, and form remain paramount.


By Diane Waldman

My first encounter with Willem de Kooning occurred in 1976 when I visited him at his studio in The Springs, East Hampton.  De Kooning was sitting in a chair in his dimly lit studio, an open dictionary on the table in front of him.  He had been searching for the meaning of ‘art’ and ‘drawing,’ he said, and seemed to relish the notion that to draw meant ‘to pull, to drag.’ 

       Perhaps it was the way he said it, perhaps it was the darkened room but those simple explanations seemed to me then and still today to be both elemental and profound.  I thought of the cave paintings I had seen at Altamira in Spain, which in their simplicity said everything there was to say about the natural world.

       After a while he got up to show me around and I was struck once again by his radiant paintings, the first of which were shown the year before at the Fourcade, Droll Gallery in New York in an exhibition of such magnitude that upon seeing them I immediately proposed a survey of this series to be held at the Guggenheim Museum.

       When Willem de Kooning moved from New York to The Springs, East Hampton in 1963, he was so carried away by his surroundings that he began to quite literally incorporate what he saw in his paintings.  As he remarked to the critic Harold Rosenberg:

       I even carried it to the extent that when I came here I made the color of sand—a big pot of paint that was the color of sand.  As if I picked up sand and mixed it.  ….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….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.[1]

       The beaches, marshes, scrub oaks and potato fields of East Hampton and Montauk slowly yielded up their secrets and with them de Kooning began a new series of paintings in which light and color are supreme.

       Born April 24, 1904 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, de Kooning emigrated illegally to the United States on the S.S.Shelley in 1926 and settled in Hoboken where he worked as a house painter.  Trained as both a commercial and fine artist he moved to New York City in 1927 and found work in a design and decorating firm.  By the early 1930s he had met and befriended Arshile Gorky, John Graham, and Stuart Davis, each of them of singular importance to him in his development as an artist.   

       De Kooning and Gorky shared an intense personal dialogue, based in part on the fact that both were foreigners, both were drawn to the many European modernists being shown, often for the first time in New York, and both were eager to investigate a wide variety of styles, chief among them Cubism, Surrealism, and the form of geometric abstraction practiced by the group the American Abstract Artists who were indebted to Mondrian and De Stijl.     

       Although these and other influences played an important role in de Kooning’s development during the 1930s and 1940s it was not until June of 1950 when he began Woman I that they coalesced into the predatory image of the female form, an iconic figure that heralded  a new and important departure for the artist. 

       I had always regarded de Kooning as the linchpin of the Abstract Expressionist movement, one foot firmly planted in the past, the other in the now. And so it was with the ‘Women.’  As it had with Gorky, innovation came from a prolonged dialogue with tradition.  References to Manet, Picasso, Matisse, to Cycladic figurines and to the Sumerian idols he saw on jaunts to the Metropolitan Museum abound in these paintings.

       De Kooning worked on the series of ‘Women’ well into the 1950s but by the 1960s with his move to The Springs he began to show a deepening interest in the landscape, which a decade later was to become his primary focus.

       Since beginning the new series in 1975 de Kooning had moved from the specific to the general, from concentration on particular areas to a more even articulation of the surface, away from shaping and placing colors and contours to resemble parts of the human figure or the landscape. 

       In Untitled XXI, as in the other paintings in the series, more completely than ever before in his long and prodigious career, de Kooning sublimated the Cubist grid and biomorphic imagery, giving himself up to color and light.  As a result, the paintings have less depth and the imagery, so to speak, really just a riot of color and a series of luscious viscous brushstrokes, sits firmly on the picture plane. 

       Gone are the reminders of the light and shade of New York.  All is light, the white light of the East End, and the reflections cast by the sun playing on the water.  Liberated from shape and contour, color and light become supreme.  As the dictionary defines it, art is the expression of what is beautiful.  Exuberant, free and innovatory, the magnificent Untitled XXI is testimony to the great late flowering of his art. 

©Diane Waldman

[1]Art News, September 1972, p. 56