Distinguished by its remarkable roiling texture and lavishly mesmerizing depth, Willem de Kooning’s triumphal Untitled X epitomizes one of the artist’s most distinguished series. Widely considered to be among his best work, these large-scale landscapes – with Untitled X a seminal model – elevate the local topography of de Kooning’s rural Long Island home to transcendent heights. Executed in 1977, the year that prominent critic, David Sylvester, has characterized as the annus mirabilis of de Kooning's career, this work reveals an artist at the peak of his prowess. Befitting its importance, the present work has been included in major exhibitions at such prestigious institutions as the Guggenheim, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Carnegie Institute. Esteemed curator Jane Livingston included Untitled X in the 36th Corcoran Biennial alongside other iconic works by the five great “Old Masters” of their generation: Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, and de Kooning. Like Lichtenstein’s Figure in Landscape from 1977, and Johns’ Corpse and Mirror of 1974, de Kooning’s Untitled X was chosen to demonstrate the exceeding “mastery, ambitiousness and sophistication” of the artists’ late output. (Livingston quoted in Paul Richard, “Corcoran’s Biennial,” The Washington Post, February 18, 1979) A paradigmatic example of this stage in de Kooning’s oeuvre, Untitled X is exceptional for the force of its improvisational urgency, its emphatic mark-making, and its expressive spatters of paint, all conveyed in the warm and earthy hues of an utterly seductive palette.
A sumptuous work of dramatic abundance, Untitled X churns with a torrent of energetic brushstrokes that produce a cacophonous surface amplified and intensified by a rich and robust layering of space. “One day,” de Kooning said, “I’d like to get all the colors in the world into one single painting.” (de Kooning, quoted in John Russell, “I See the Canvas and I Begin,” The New York Times, 5 February 1978, p. D1) Indeed, de Kooning’s magnificent range in Untitled X comprises a veritable rainbow. Rich passages of luminous color abound; a verdurous, lush, dendritic expanse of leafy green evokes grassy beach-front knolls, while fleshy areas of peach and blonde convey flashes of bare skin as they race through the sand. A host of supporting colors enliven the already jubilant scene, including coral, violet, teal, and brilliant oyster-white, each eliding into the next to create a shimmering, vivacious whole.
The animated surfaces of de Kooning’s works from this period are the product of much consideration and refinement. He began by preparing the canvas, coating the entire ground in several layers of an opaque lead white, then sanded this down and added more layers of paint, which were sanded in turn, until the surface became almost translucent. Achieving the right consistency in his medium was of paramount importance, and de Kooning was not afraid to get creative in the pursuit of texture. “His studio tables look like cross-mating of the workshop of a Renaissance chemist with the kitchen of very good cook who is big on sauces,” John Russell wrote of de Kooning’s process in 1978. “In bowl after bowl, inscrutable mixtures quietly get themselves together. To make precisely the right sexy juices for those new paintings demands an enormous application. Oil paint is thinned with water. Safflower oil, kerosene and mayonnaise are pressed into service as binding agents,” (John Russell, op. cit.) The wide housepainter’s brushes he preferred were loaded with paint, then pushed, pulled, and tugged across the canvas, resulting in a patchwork of impastoed brushstrokes, which are reworked and molded with a palette knife or spatula. Certain areas are then disrupted by large excavated areas where he has scraped off the surface to reveal traces of earlier strokes underneath.
Typical of this series, the explosive array of de Kooning’s painterly techniques is astounding; whether slowly and luxuriously smeared in broad swooping strokes, or urgently splashed in vigorous flicks of the wrist, his gesture becomes the driving force of painterly action in Untitled X, evincing a mature artist at a profound moment of clarity and passion. As only the true master can, de Kooning pressed the antithetical dialogue between improvisation and control; every gesture and splatter is laid bare as colors, lines, and forms elide into one another, resulting in a vital tension that activates his canvas to the extreme. The present painting’s twisting, mercurial surface eschews the passive perspectival traditions of scenery which dominate landscape painting. Rather, its dynamism is highly evocative of the actual experience of being in a landscape: active scenery endlessly rearranged by light, wind, time, and mood.
De Kooning’s revered East Hampton surroundings offered the ideal setting for this sublimation of depiction and experience. Indeed, Untitled X’s rousing beauty is a clear expression of the inspiration de Kooning found in the natural splendor of his coastal environs at this stage in his life, when he moved away from the urban environment of Manhattan to his studio at Springs. When he first arrived in 1961, de Kooning enjoyed the unique landscape of the area, and this in many ways entered and informed his work. Now in the mid-seventies he became increasingly preoccupied with his immediate environment, its light and topography, and particularly the wateriness of the landscape around Louse Point. "When I moved into this house," de Kooning observed in 1976, "everything seemed self-evident. The space, the light, the trees--I just accepted it without thinking about it much. Now I look around with new eyes. I think it's all a kind of miracle" (de Kooning quoted in Marla Prather, exh. cat. Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Willem de Kooning: Paintings, 1994, p. 197). Like Monet at Giverny, de Kooning looked to his immediate world and his own art to create a series of monumental abstract landscapes that were among the most exuberant paintings of his career, achieving a grand synthesis of subject and medium.
To stand in front of Untitled X is to experience absolute absorption, as the full breadth of de Kooning’s genius freely unfurls across the canvas. The artist’s confidence in his craft at this stage in his career is clear in the emphatic strokes of pigment that splash across the canvas, laid down with the bold certainty that accompanies true mastery. His command of this gestural fluidity attained a Pollock-like intuitive painterly abandon, while simultaneously maintaining complete control over the resultant whole. Untitled X is a truly exceptional embodiment of the emphatic mark-making and sheer force of painterly conviction that defines de Kooning’s majestic contribution to Twentieth Century art.
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