THE HISTORY OF NOW: THE COLLECTION OF DAVID TEIGER SOLD TO BENEFIT TEIGER FOUNDATION FOR THE SUPPORT OF CONTEMPORARY ART
A monumental and breathtaking masterpiece from one of the greatest heroes, not only of the twentieth-century, but also from within a greater art historical canon, Willem de Kooning’s Untitled from 1987 epitomizes the numerous investigations into line, color, and form that defined the artist’s inimitable corpus. Executed in the twilight years of his storied career, Untitled crystallizes the artistic and aesthetic inquiries de Kooning pursued in a serene and elegant canvas that belies an extraordinary degree of skill and technical prowess. Comprising each of the high-keyed primary colors that constitute the 1980s canvases, Untitled is further distinguished by the addition of smooth washes of complementary secondary colors.
The paintings of the 1980s announced a period of renewed activity in de Kooning’s output; following a low point in the artist’s physical and mental health, 1981 heralded in a new era of clear thinking and revived artistic production. For much of his career, de Kooning had defined himself against the two modern masters Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso, both of whom had eschewed traditional methods of representation in favor of more iconoclastic artistic practices. By 1980, de Kooning had moved full time to East Hampton, where he remained largely in the care of his ex-wife Elaine de Kooning. It was Elaine who reeled de Kooning back from the tempestuous maelstrom of deeply destructive behavior that had defined the previous decade, much a result of severe depression and dramatic mood swings. Newly sober and accompanied by Elaine and a variety of studio assistants and close friends, de Kooning returned to his studio, where he resumed his heroic position as a giant of post-war painting.
Across the gestural canvases of de Kooning’s Woman paintings of the 1950s, traces of Cézanne’s innovative brushwork and Picasso’s radical renegotiation of space come to the fore. In the 1980s, however, de Kooning turned for inspiration to Henri Matisse, and indeed the present work evokes the lyrical and sinuous lines articulated in Matisse’s most iconic drawings and paintings, such as Still Life With The Dance; here, as in the present work, figuration collides with abstraction in vibrant and dynamic composition. And yet, despite looking to his predecessors, de Kooning forged his own artistic vernacular, one that remains among the most inventive, immediately recognizable, and transformative of the twentieth century. From his critical canvases of the 1950s, de Kooning preserved the scraping technique he had pioneered early in his career; yet the 1980s saw cutting-edge changes in his praxis.
Arguably, Elaine is personally responsible for the proliferation of canvases executed in the 1980s, as she not only rescued de Kooning from himself, but also subtly directed and introduced nuances to this later body of work. Elaine’s brother Conrad Fried engineered a rotating and hinged easel that allowed de Kooning to rotate and reorient his canvases very easily. This seemingly simple technical innovation in fact contributed to the consistency and unity of the 1980s paintings, as de Kooning constantly turned and shifted them, creating paintings that could be read in any number of ways.
The present work evokes the very best of Matisse’s canvases in its brilliant use of vibrant color and sinuous line. De Kooning here demonstrates his mastery over abstraction, creating a composition that lilts and delights in its hints and suggestions to representative forms. Biomorphic passages of oleaginous chroma undulate across the canvas in thin veils of diaphanous color. Circumscribed by bold outlines of scarlet and cerulean, these varying golden passages abut ethereally pale washes of light porcelain blue and pale candy pink. Although entirely abstracted, de Kooning’s canvases will, upon close inspection, reveal the clues to a figures or landscape. In the present work, the centermost red brushstroke acts as a horizon line against an atmospheric vista, beneath which a translucent swath of butter yellow swells into the clear aqua that dominates the right hand side of the canvas. Eggshell white and red cascade across the composition in lilting arabesques. Although lyrical and subdued with sinuously contoured lines, these glowing expanses of color belie the muscular and vigorous gesture that defined de Kooning’s 1950s Woman canvases.
The evanescent feathering of paint across this monumental canvas attests to the peerless technical prowess of one of the most revered American artists of the past century. An endless expanse of ribbon-like brushstrokes and suave riptides of color collide against de Kooning’s robust Abstract Expressionist gesture, the immediacy of which is never lost, even among the billowing and contoured forms of Untitled. Unlike many of de Kooning’s peers who turned to darker or moodier ‘terminal styles’ toward the end of their lives, de Kooning broke free from his previously established method and instead introduced a new painterly approach.
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