Painted in 1983, Untitled V is an extraordinarily fluid and exhilarating work that exemplifies the full reductive force of de Kooning's late style. This is a significant painting from one of de Kooning's most prolific periods and its virtuoso display of free-flowing pigment and graceful line saw it selected for both the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's critically important touring exhibition Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings, The 1980s of 1996-7, and the comprehensive de Kooning retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, New York in 2011. Shunning all except primary colors and concentrating solely on meandering brushstrokes and bold monochrome against a void of white, this painting articulates a sequence of abstract curves, twists, and turns which suggest the motion and form of the human body and the living vitality of nature. Figures and landscapes had played a major part in de Kooning's paintings for many years, so the vague hint of a figure amongst the gestural abstract forms of this work is not surprising. So corporeal is de Kooning's art that his so-called abstraction always hovered on the edge of figuration.
Swaying, falling, thrusting upwards, overlapping, but never quite interlocking, the calligraphic lines and in-filled contours of Untitled V pivot around the intensely yellow field that flows outwards from the center and dissipates as it reaches the lower edge of the canvas. This undulating half-form at once evokes the curves of a reclining nude, the turn of a high-heeled shoe, or the golden sands near de Kooning's East Hampton home. All else dances around and resists this anchor point, pushing and pulling the composition into a state of ever-moving tension. Other instances of biomorphism can be traced amongst the whiplashed blue strokes and solid red shapes, including the phallic arc rendered in positive and negative in the upper left corner, and the rotated 'W' nearby--classic de Kooning short-hand for a woman's breasts or backside. But this is a highly abstract composition, and the allusions to external imagery are secondary to the commanding presence of the glowing canvas with flowing lines of paint.
Luminous, lyrical and utterly sensual, works such as Untitled V have a presence and a dynamism that rival de Kooning's best works of any period. Yet the frenzied brushmarks and variegated pigments of earlier years have gone. In this, his final series of paintings, de Kooning recalls his early enamel works from the 1940s where drawing is the essential component. Like those earlier paintings, he has deliberately reduced his palette and purged his work of all superfluous detail. To achieve the fresh and effortless appearance of Untitled V de Kooning still had to labor mightily, as he had done throughout his career. He would begin with a reference drawing, or photographs of other works, often using charcoal to transfer or re-interpret them onto the canvas. He would then respond to these marks with brush and palette knife by following their contours, filling in delineated spaces or over-painting them altogether. Anything de Kooning did not wish to retain was scraped off, leaving ghosts of pigment behind. This technique would continue: add, adjust, remove, add again, until his painting possessed a "countenance" that he was happy with. Evidence of this pentimenti is clearly visible in Untitled V where de Kooning allowed the evolution of the painting to show through gaps in the white-painted ground. It is this subtly tinted white pigment that defines in the 1980s paintings. Having reduced his painterly means to what he was always best at, the incisive and intuitive touch of his line, de Kooning set this against the open emptiness of an infinite white space. In the pure reductive forms of these works he not only developed a resolute assuredness but he also seemed to be unashamedly revelling in the fundamental simplicity of his art. "I am becoming freer,' he explained, 'I feel that I have found myself more, the sense that I have all my strength at my command. I think you can do miracles with what you have if you accept it. I am more certain the way I use paint and the brush" (W. de Kooning, quoted in M. Prather (ed.),Willem de Kooning exh. cat. Tate Gallery, London, 1995, p. 199).
One of de Kooning's most impressive achievements was his ability to continually develop, refine and advance his work over a period of 60 years, yet maintain an unmistakable touch that is instantly recognizable as his own. Never content to settle into one stultifying style, de Kooning continued to experiment and take risks with his art. At the dawn of the 1980s he overcame the debilitating effects of alcoholism and depression and began to paint again with his former vigor, fuelled by the consciousness that he may not have many years left in which to create. The works that followed are startlingly reflective not only of the new-found sobriety and the self-acceptance that derived from de Kooning's self-imposed isolation on Long Island, but also of his decision to continue to work into old age in the manner that he had always practiced his art, using painting as the entire raison d'tre of his life.
In Untitled V, we see a new freedom and lightness that calls to mind the work of Henri Matisse, an artist with whom de Kooning clearly identified in his last years. He had long admired Matisse--another artist with a long career of markedly different 'styles'--for both his early painting, and the late paper cutouts. Tom Ferrara, one of his studio assistants at the time, recalls that de Kooning often spoke of Matisse's 1909 La Danse in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art. The present work reflects how the undulating lines of the circular dance have been assimilated into de Kooning's late canvases, while the painting's bold, sharply defined forms resemble the contours of Matisse's colorful abstract cutouts. "Lately I've been thinking that it would be nice to be influenced by Matisse,' de Kooning said in 1980. "I mean he's so lighthearted. I have a book about how he was old and he cut out colored patterns and he made it so joyous. I would like to do that, too--not like him, but joyous, more or less" (W. de Kooning, quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swann, de Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2004, p. 589). By the 1980s de Kooning had outlived many of his peers in the Abstract Expressionist movement and some of his most trusted supporters, but his work shows none of the morbidity that can inflect the work of mature artists. It instead focuses on life's impulse to create and flourish. We therefore find no finality in Untitled V, just open-ended possibility and the exultant pleasure of painting.
Oil on canvas
Property from the Pincus Family Foundation
Signed 'de Kooning' (on the stretcher)
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning , 20th Century, Paintings, United States of America, Post War
New York, Xavier Fourcade, Inc., In Honor of de Kooning, December 1983-January 1984, n.p. (illustrated in color).
New York, Xavier Fourcade, Inc., Willem de Kooning, May-June 1984 (illustrated in color and on the announcement card).
London, Anthony d'Offay Gallery, Willem de Kooning: Paintings and Sculpture 1971-1983, November 1984-January 1985, no. 15 (illustrated in color).
University Park, Pennsylvania State University, Palmer Museum of Art, Collecting with a Passion: The David and Gerry Pincus Collection, August 1993-January 1994, p. 2 (illustrated in color).
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Minneapolis, Walker Art Center and Bonn, Stádtiches Kunstmuseum, Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings, the 1980s, October 1995-August 1996, p. 124, no. 16 (illustrated in color).
New York, Museum of Modern Art, de Kooning: A Retrospective, September 2011-January 2012, pp. 466 and 497, no. 187 (illustrated in color).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
88 x 77 in. (223.5 x 195.6 cm.)
E. Leiser, "Willem de Kooning," Frankfurter Allgemeine Magazin, 2 March 1984, p. 35 (illustrated in color).
C. Ratcliff, "The Past Undone: Willem de Kooning," Art in America, vol. 72, no. 2, Summer 1984, p. 123 (illustrated).
S. Miller, "Putting Flesh into Oil Painting," The Times, 4 December 1984.
W. Feaver, "Spotlight: de Kooning," Vogue, January 1985, pp. 86-87 (illustrated).
T. Mullaly, "Willem de Kooning," Daily Telegraph, 14 January 1985. W. Packer, "Willem de Kooning: Anthony d'Offay Gallery: New York's Grand Old Man," Financial Times, 17 January 1985 (illustrated).
M. Codognato, "Willem de Kooning: Changing Moods and Lights," Domus, vol. 658, February 1985 (illustrated).
J. Tully, "Een hofhouding van curatoren," Art and Valure, vol. 2, no. 1, 1994, p. 54 (illustrated).
I. Schlagcheck, "Vom ihm haben viele Gelernt," Art-Das Kunstmagazin, no. 4, April 1994, pp. 14 and 27 (illustrated).
A. Wallach, "Strokes of Genius, or Flailings in the Dark," New York Times, 24 September 1995 (illustrated).
A. Katz, "de Kooning's Modern Maturity," San Francisco Independent, 26 September 1995, no. 12 (illustrated).
"Review: Willem de Kooning, the Late Paintings," San Francisco Examiner, 20 October 1995 (illustrated).
D. Bonneti, "Bay City Best," San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle, 25 October 1995, p. B5 (illustrated).
C. Tomkins, "De Kooning as Melodrama," The New Yorker, 10 February 1997, pp. 74-77 (illustrated in color).
J.S. Oxendine, "Lots to Contemplate ar de Koooning Exhibit," Times Sam Mateo, 6 October 2005, D20 (illustrated).
J. Saltz, "Definitive at MoMA: the Full, Amazing, Ever-evolving, Never-retreating Story of Willem de Kooning," New York Magazine, 25 September 2011, pp. 74-75 (illustrated in color).
Xavier Fourcade, Inc., New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1985