That’s what fascinates me—to make something I can never be sure of, and no one else can either. I will never know, and no one else will ever know… That’s the way art is.WILLEM DE KOONING(Willem de Kooning, 1972, from an interview with Harold Rosenberg, de Kooning Paintings: 1960-1980, Ostfildern-Ruit, 2005, p. 154).In the late 1960s, as his ever-widening mastery of abstract painting began to cross into new realms, Willem de Kooning conceived a series of breathtaking pictures. Termed the “abstract landscapes”, these canvases are rich with an assortment of color in both thickly applied line and viscous, saturated patches. Yet, as de Kooning advanced into the early 1970s, his prolific series soon reached a dormant stage as experiments in sculpture and other mediums began to overtake the majority of his artistic output. At this point, as his personal challenges and frustrations grew more obvious in his work, de Kooning sensed a great need to begin again the most spectacular form of his own brand of Abstract Expressionism. In 1975, de Kooning made a triumphant return to the abstract landscapes, creating them with more sensitivity and bravado than ever before. The present lot, Untitled VI, 1975, is a shining example of this series at its most glowing and beautiful height.First relocating from New York City to Springs in 1961, his art quickly began to show marks of the environment in which it was produced. The influence of nature is eminent in his canvases of the mid-1960s, namely in the watery textures that often arise out of his painted surfaces. Also around this period, we witness the dissolution of the figure in de Kooning’s work; though he previously riffed on a specific subject in order to create an abstract rendering, his first batch of abstract landscapes are mostly free from this central form. Furthermore, his technique for producing paintings became as regular as their production: starting with a doodle or another sketch of a figurative object, de Kooning would enlarge it on a canvas, gradually dispelling its figurative parts as he added layer upon layer of paint with both heavy handed brushstrokes and a palette knife. He also began to favor a rotating easel, gaining as much access to every corner of each painting as he pleased at any given moment.As he began his new phase of abstract landscapes, de Kooning found that his work ethic was both effortless and impressive. During the summer of 1975, he produced over twenty new large-scale canvases at his studio in Springs, Long Island. However, de Kooning’s obsession with large canvas paintings stemmed not from a desire for power or visual grandiloquence, rather, it was a struggle to make the painting deeply personal for the observer. He summarized this effort in a 1972 interview with his friend and poet Harold Rosenberg: “if I make a big painting I want it to be intimate. I want to separate it from the mural. I want it to stay an easel painting. It has to be a painting, not something made for a special place…To make a small painting look big is very difficult, but to make a big painting look small is also very difficult.” (Willem de Kooning, 1972, from an interview with Harold Rosenberg, (de Kooning Paintings: 1960-1980, Ostfildern-Ruit, 2005, p. 147). Here, we see the crux of de Kooning’s artistic project at the time: making art that is at once monumental and intimate.De Kooning’s resulting canvas is a resounding success in his aims to create a space both great and small for the viewer. Untitled VI, 1975 stands vertically before the viewer, roughly seven feet tall by six feet wide. De Kooning almost always chose a canvas with these similar measurements for his abstract landscapes, sometimes varying their sizes by a few inches on each side. Within the space of its dimensions, the present lot holds a wealth of delicate, yet forceful color. As a whole, the picture radiates a lustrous pink as its chief chromatic element. Yet, upon closer inspection, we witness that pink is not only simply inadequate to describe the surface, but also wildly inaccurate. Swaths of crimson decorate the upper-right hand corner of the painting, both unabashedly smeared into their foregrounds and lightly tiptoeing in thin linesacross the light and airy patches of creamy white on which they sit. Further to the right, we witness a community of shapes whose construction seems pre-planned; a conical structure of pink sits within a light red outline, almost as though it were supporting the variety of burnt orange and powder blue sections above it.Below these peaceful forms lay a more violent patch of orange, indigo, and pale yellow, with a partial border of black. If de Kooning sometimes planned the outline of his abstract paintings, we see in this different chromatic interaction an example of his rebellion against that very plan. The patch itself radiates spontaneity, a tribute to his action painting of the 1950s. In the central portion of the picture, we observe somewhat of a neutral area: the colors are mixed in their joyous scrawl, partially red and partially orange and white. Several lines lay parallel to each other, giving the focal point of the viewer a balanced and orderly point of reference. But perhaps de Koonings most precious area of painting is the present lot’s left side, where bright blues and whites are bound up with soft greys, creating a floating surface of varying shades and viscous texture. The painting itself emits a chromatic range, possibly influenced by a Japanese aesthetic. Five years earlier, in 1970, de Kooning himself had traveled to Japan on business. Though his work from that period was limited, we can observe its lasting influence in pinks, whites, severe reds, and delicate and restrained blues of the present lot.Though de Kooning reaches his peak as a colorist in the present lot, his intimidating oeuvre provides many forbearers. But two in particular are harbingers of the coinciding economy and structure within Untitled VI. Woman IV, 1952-53 presents us with one of de Kooning’s most celebrated figures amid a background composed the same major colors in the present lot: pink, red, blue, and white. Her figure rests amongst swirls of radiating tones, foregrounding her figure against of background of color. In contrast, the present lot melds background and foreground, as colors dance through, on top of, and underneath each other in alternating patterns. De Kooning has simultaneously flattened and visually enriched his surface.In a structural sense, Interchanged, 1955 represents one of de Kooning’s earliest forays into near total abstraction. We can see similarities between the present lot and Interchanged in their wealth of figurative suggestion. For instance, in Untitled VI, the shape created through smudged grey line in the lower lefthand corner resembles a female breast, a visual trope for which de Kooning has become widely known. In Interchanged, we can spot three descending shapes in the central portion of the picture, each resembling the head, torso, and legs of his earlier female subject. Though Interchanged also shares much of its palette with Untitled VI, its rough geometry cannot approach that of the liquid fluidity of the present lot.Indeed, the difference between the paintings of de Kooning’s earlier career and that of the present lot is that of the importance of structure versus color: “Whereas earlier…the binding agent of the composition was drawing, now color assumed that role—color, though, that was itself drawn in threads, in luminous strands and ribbons of varying weight. Each thread remains itself, its own color, yet all are woven to form sometimes ordered, sometimes disheveled, and sometimes disoblingingly messy skeins of color—of color in the singular—caught between meshing and unraveling.”(J. Elderfield, “Space to Paint”, de Kooning: A Retrospective, Edited by John Elderfield, New York, 2011, p. 38).The seemingly random formation of de Kooning’s lines and filled in blocks of color have a greater goal in mind, one that is a result of his oceanic residence in Springs. More often than not, de Kooning’s canvases of the latter half of the 1970s are rich in their resemblance to watery surfaces. De Kooning’s style is paradoxical in one respect: though his viscous brushstrokes often lie perpendicular to each other, in a linear and somewhat concrete approach, they come to represent the antagonist of structure—the ocean itself. “Organized in loosely bunched strokes inclining to horizontal and vertical disposition, these abstractions often appear like reflections of nature, fractured and distorted by the wind-driven ripples on the surface of the sea or one of the roadside puddles de Kooning so often stared into.”(K. Kertess, “Painting’s Skin”, de Kooning Paintings: 1960-1980, Ostfildern-Ruit, 2005, p. 59).In the scope of his career, de Kooning’s ability to portray inherent movement in his pictures increased as he aged. In addition, symbiotically, de Kooning’s increasing motion in his paintings provides for a greater wealth of suggestion and sensuous association for the observer: “Everything seems to be floating, flying, lying, and falling in these paintings, their energy heightened by a pulsating rhythm. One cannot help yielding to fantasies of atmospheric landscapes after all, to thoughts of wind, light, sounds, scents, and water as well, which absorbs all natural appearances, including the human figure.”(B. Burgi, “Abstract Landscapes”, de Kooning Paintings: 1960-1980, Ostfildern-Ruit, 2005, p. 26). It is a true marvel that de Kooning was able to reproduce the sensual environment of his home in Springs with every canvas that he produced. As a common practice in his studio, he often set up paintings recently finished or in progress around him as he painted in order to gain additional inspiration from them as he worked. This, combined with his constant rotation of each canvas during its conception, made for a rich atmosphere during each canvas’s creation - both intellectual and physical. We witness the physical nature of this artistic incubation in Untitled VI’s suberb balance as a picture.This close relationship and give-and-take amongst de Kooning’s abstract landscape’s is an apt metaphor for the way in which he invented himself as an artist. As one who lived through many decades of both modernism and post-modernism in the wide arena of visual art, de Kooning as an artist was swamped with an anxiety of influence. Constantly aware of his idiosyncratic position in the history of painting, there is perhaps no greater painter of the past century who was more in tune with the constant creative pressures of his forbearers. As de Kooning himself has testified, his fluid reception to a variety of influences made his oeuvre particularly remarkable in its subtle and obvious variations, and, in the end, it is a principle reason for his greatness: avoiding a concrete style, he made himself uncategorizable—an artist as unprejudiced in his choice of historical authorities as he was eager to allow them to depart his paintings.After the abstract landscape paintings of the late 1970s, which were both the most prolific and most critically acclaimed of his career, de Kooning entered sobriety, and his canvases began to exhibit a cleaner, more calculated use of color and line. Yet the late abstract landscapes are the greatest marriage of technique and emotional tour-de-force. Uncompromising in their chromatic richness, dripping texture and unrestrained spontaneity of creation, the abstract landscapes represent perhaps the most intense phase of de Kooning’s career. And, as we see in the Untitled VI, de Kooning’s inimitable product is a result of massive attention to his environment, to his technique, and to himself.
Oil on canvas
Signed "Willem de Kooning" on the reverse.
Willem de Kooning
New York, Fourcade, Droll Inc., de Kooning: New Works, Paintings and Sculpture, October 25 - December 6, 1975
Seattle, Seattle Art Museum, de Kooning: New Works, Paintings and Sculpture, February 4 - March 14, 1976
London, Gimpel Fils, Willem de Kooning: Recent Paintings, June 29 – August 12, 1976
Houston, University of Houston, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Gallery, de Kooning – Recent Works, January 15 - February 20, 1977
Edinburgh, Fruit Market Gallery, The Sculpture of de Kooning with Related Paintings, Drawings & Lithographs, October 15 - November 12, 1977; London, Serpentine Gallery,
November 26, 1977-January 8, 1978
Cedar Falls, Gallery of Art, University of Northern Iowa, de Kooning: 1969-1978, October 21-November 26, 1978; St. Louis, St. Louis Art Museum, January 11-February 22, 1979; Cincinnati, Contemporary Arts Center, March 9 - April 22, 1979; Akron, Akron Art Institute, May 12 – June 24, 1979
Los Angeles, James Corcoran Gallery, de Kooning, February - September 1980
Featured in the film Rollover, 1981. Starring Jane Fonda and Kris Kristofferson. Directed by Alan J. Pakula. IPC Films.
80 x 70 in. (203.2 x 177.8 cm)
X. Fourcade, De Kooning: New Works, Paintings and Sculpture, New York, Fourcade, Droll Inc., 1975, cat. no. 6 (illustrated)
W. de Kooning, De Kooning: New Works, Paintings and Sculpture, Seattle, Seattle Art Museum, 1976, cat. no. 6 (illustrated)
W. de Kooning, Willem de Kooning: Recent Paintings, London, Gimpel Fils, 1976, no. 4, p. 3
A. Forge, The Sculpture of de Kooning with Related Paintings, Drawings & Lithographs, Edinburgh, Fruit Market Gallery, 1977, no. 35
J. Cowart, S. Sivitz Shaman, de Kooning: 1969-1978, Cedar Falls, Gallery of Art, University of Northern Iowa, 1978, no. 4, p. 18
Acquired directly from the artist
Collection of Nancy and Benno Schmidt
Sale: Sotheby’s, New York, Contemporary Art, Part I, May 17, 2000, lot 44
Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art, New York