"I want to grab a piece of nature and make it as real as it actually is. How the hell can you paint the Merritt Parkway-a ribbon of gray in green and it stretches for miles and miles. Then in the Fall when the colors change, it's positively crazy. For years I had an idea of it, but then I painted it, and it is real"
-Willem de Kooning
Tightly focusing his picture on only broad brushstrokes painted in sharp vectors, dashed across the surface in vehemently grand gestures, September Morn is part of Willem de Kooning's celebrated "abstract parkway landscapes." This austere and highly compact picture emanates with raw painterly elegance--oil paint and movement become the subject matter. Combining the performative aspect of Abstract Expressionism and its insistence on the participation of the spectator, September Morn provides a thrilling visual experience. With its rapid brushstrokes and highly personalized palette of ochers, brilliant blues, marigold yellows and stunning white, September Morn is an impressive work that demonstrates de Kooning's shifting focus from the urban grit of New York City to the more rural environs of the Hudson River Valley and the East End of Long Island during the late 1950s. Of the "abstract parkway landscapes" de Kooning famously noted, "Most of them are landscapes and highways and sensations of that, outside the city with the feeling of going into the city or coming from it" (W. de Kooning, quoted in J. Elderfield, de Kooning: A Retrosepctive, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011, p. 317).
Shifting even further away from his great Woman series at the start of the decade, the "abstract parkway landscapes" characterized for their impressive "full arm sweeps," are highly regarded as one of de Kooning's most influential breakthrough years. With a certain dynamism, these works, exemplified by September Morn, express the rapid blur of the landscape that de Kooning had absorbed from inside the speeding car en route to Long Island or the Hudson River. Perhaps most eloquently summed up by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan in their decisive text on the artist, Stevens and Swan surmise, "The grand abstract paintings that de Kooning completed in the city in 1958 and 1959 looked eastward, reflecting the light, ocean, and color of Long Island. There large and heavy brushstrokes were often compared to highways and aptly so, for de Kooning during this period was constantly traveling back and forth between his New York studio and the house in the Springs. (While he never learned to drive a car, he loved sitting in the passenger seat, studying the highway and glimpsing the passing landscapes.) But the paintings, while touched by the country, were in no sense retiring. They were instead bold and declamatory, even domineering. De Kooning did not seem to fuss overmuch with small subtleties. His beautiful highway strokes swept through his dominions. The paintings had panache; they displayed the confident 'grand style' of which de Kooning dreamed. He always enjoyed looking at the billboards along the highway, and his pictures of the time capture the eye with the instantaneous impact--the 'gotcha'--of an unforgettable sign" (M. Stevens and A. Swan, Willem de Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2011, p. 410).
Providing his own insight into this pivotal series--which would mark the cornerstone for de Kooning's later investigations of nature, and more importantly water in the 1960s and 1970s--de Kooning oft referred to Merritt Parkway (Detroit Institute of Arts). Painted a year later in 1959, Merritt Parkway shares remarkable similarities to September Morn. While both compositions are dramatically divided down the vertical center with a strong and powerful burst of white brushwork, it appears as though de Kooning has taken the early composition of September Morn and flipped its patches of color 90 degrees to create the later Merritt Parkway. Where as September Morn possess a clearly definable horizon line, with golden and russet hues evoking autumn fields, and the crisp sundrenched blue of a perfect September morning, Merritt Parkway is flipped off kilter --expressing grassy meadows and intersecting roads. In fact, the critic and historian Richard Shiff has inferred in his seminal text on Willem de Kooning, Between Sense and de Kooning, that all of the "abstract parkway landscapes" of 1958 and 1959--even those who take their title from roads leading elsewhere--are themselves reminiscent of the scenic highway leading New Yorkers to the Connecticut suburbs and country side.
"I want to grab a piece of nature and make it as real as it actually is," de Kooning told Irving Sandler in 1959. "How the hell can you paint the Merritt Parkway--a ribbon of gray in green and it stretches for miles and miles. Then in the Fall when the colors change, it's positively crazy. For years I had an idea of it, but then I painted it, and it is real" (W. de Kooning, quoted in R. Shiff, Between Sense and de Kooning, London, 2011, p. 60). He later explained to David Sylvester, "I love to be on those highways. And they are really not every pretty, but the big embankments and the shoulders of the roads and the curves are flawless--the lawning of it, the grass...When I was working on these pictures, this thing came to me: it's just like Merritt Parkway...I don't think I set out to do anything. But I find, because of modern paint...it's that things which couldn't be seen in terms of painting, things you couldn't paint...it's not that you but them but it's the connection...Inasmuch as I should set out to paint Merritt Parkway years ago, it seems I must have liked it so much I must have subconsciously found a way of setting it downon canvas" (W. de Kooning, quoted in J. Elderfield, De Kooning: A Retrospective, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011, p. 317).
With its bold dynamic brushwork, it is nearly impossible to view September Morn without drawing clear relations to de Kooning's close friend and fellow Abstract Expressionist artist, Franz Kline. Like de Kooning, Kline was a prominent figure in the Tenth Street painting scene and the two had been friends since the early 1940s. In fact, it was from Kline that de Kooning drew his rebellious nature--one that permeated and flourished among the Cedar Tavern gang. With their characteristic "full arm sweep," these late 1950s de Koonings were highly reminiscent of Kline's black architectonic slabs and slashes. Interesting to note, it is also during this period that Kline's abstractions began to shift to color, away from their usual black and white--however, they did not allude to landscape as did de Kooning's compositions.
"I'm not trying to be virtuoso," de Kooning stated of his swift painting technique, "but I have to do it fast" (W. de Kooning, quoted in ibid., 318). With its active brushstrokes that swoop up, jolt down, slide diagonally down the sides, and burst near the center, September Morn merely suggests a snap shot of a large scene. Layered, scrapped down, and worked with a clear demonstration of vitality and controlled force, this work is a powerful abstract statement derived from speeding cars and the vastness of nature. It was in these impressive and feverishly rendered landscapes that a younger generation of Abstract Expressionists would be inspired to paint--taking note of de Koonings explosive style. Even Jasper Johns would later recall of the "abstract parkway landscapes" that they were "wonderful paintings" that "made me want to go out and buy a big brush" (J. Johns, quoted in ibid., p. 320).
Oil on canvas
Signed 'De Kooning' (lower right)
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning , 20th Century, Paintings, United States of America, Post War
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, De Kooning, May-June 1959.
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, 11 Abstract Expressionist Painters: de Kooning, Francis, Gorky, Gottlieb, Guston, Klein, Motherwell, Nauman, Pollock, Rothko, Still, October-November 1963, no. 2 (illustrated).
New York, Museum of Modern Art, The Sydney and Harriet Janis Collection, January-March 1968, p. 5.
New York, Museum of Modern Art; Minneapolis Institute of Arts; Portland Art Museum; Pasadena Art Museum; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Seattle Art Museum; Dallas Museum of Fine Arts; Detroit Institute of Arts; Buffalo, Albright-Knox Gallery; Cleveland Museum of Art; Kunsthalle Basel; London, Institute of Contemporary Art; Berlin, Akademie der Knste; Kunsthalle Nrnberg; Cologne, Koelnischer Kunstverein and Brussels, Le Palais des Beaux - Arts; De Kooning, January 1968-April 1971, no. 47 (illustrated).
Kunstmuseum Bern; Cologne, Museum Ludwig; Lisbon, Gulbenkian Foundation; Madrid, Museo de Arte Moderno; Vienna, 21er Haus and Tel Aviv Museum of Art, American Art from the Museum of Modern Art, February 1979-April 1980, no. 26 (illustrated).
Cologne, Rheinhallen, West Kunst: Zeit Genossische Kunst Zeit 1939, May-August 1981, p. 427, no. 510 (illustrated).
Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art; New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art and London, Tate Gallery, Willem De Kooning: Paintings, May 1994-May 1995, p. 158, no 47 (illustrated in color).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
63 x 49½ in. (160 x 125.7 cm.)
T. Hess, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1959, no. 1 (illustrated in color).
It is, spring 1959, p. 37 (illustrated).
Recent Paintings by de Kooning, exh. cat., New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, n.p. (illustrated).
Art Journal, fall 1989, p. 239 (illustrated).
W. Blesh, H. Janis, De Kooning, New York, 1960, no. 36 (illustrated).
El Como Emplumado, July 1966 (illustrated in color on the cover).
Three Generations of Twentieth Century Art: The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1972, pp. 120 and 190, no 621.67.
H. Rosenberg, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1974, pl. 69 (illustrated).
F. Porter and R. Downes, eds., Art in its Own Terms: Selected Criticism 1935-1975, New York, 1979, p. 39, no. 4 (illustrated).
Willem De Kooning, exh. cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1983, p. 195, no. 209 (illustrated in color).
B. Hess, Willem de Kooning 1904-1997: Content as a Glimpse, Cologne, 2004, p. 46 (illustrated in color).
J. Elderfield, et. al., De Kooning: A Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2011, p. 307.
Collection of the Artist
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Blum Helman Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
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