Painted in 1986, Untitled VII belongs to a remarkable series of paintings that Willem de Kooning created in his final decade—a last great creative flourish that became the culmination of his life’s work. “The heavy impasto and foamy bliss in his 70’s paintings gave way to sanded and scraped surfaces, rainbows of color yielding to thin ribbons twisting on bare backgrounds,” the New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman has described. “You can still see the lyrical, seemingly effortless graphic virtuosity in some of the airy forms that loop and spin across these canvases” (M. Kimmelman, “The Lives They Lived; Life is Short, Art is Long, New York Times Magazine, January 4, 1998). Possessing the qualities in abundance, Untitled VII is one of de Kooning’s final triumphs—a painting that’s both rapturous and lean, defined by calligraphic lines that curve and wend their way through the canvas, revealing the renewed strength of de Kooning’s line and his restrained yet glorious use of color.
Tapping into decades of experience, de Kooning carries on his life’s work in Untitled VII, to create an arrangement of interlocking forms that hints at his most overarching themes. Even with his limited palette – icy blues, warm, earthen reds and luminous, golden yellows—the artist evokes a luxurious world that verges on the sublime. Ribbon-like and meandering, his lines are elongated and thinned, stretched and pulled impossibly toward the upper right, as they curve their way, path like, toward the painting’s upper edge. Like a distant road receding into the horizon or smoke from a genie’s bottle, de Kooning’s lines merge into rainbow-like partnerships of blue, yellow and red, or they blend, chameleon-like, into new arrangements. What might begin as a single, blue line slowly and effortlessly turns a grassy green, while elsewhere it’s wholly enveloped by red. De Kooning assimilates a lifetime’s effort into the linear forms that guide the viewer into and through this composition, and familiar forms begin to emerge. Along the left edge, the female form in all its curvaceous glory has been reduced and refined into a series of simple blue outlines. Hollowed out and airy, its ghosted form nevertheless remains, along with the watery landscape of the Springs--which is felt rather than overtly depicted.
De Kooning spent thirty years in Springs on Long Island, pondering the past masters whose work had flowered with age, especially Matisse, but also his old friend Arshile Gorky. Turning inward, the artist tapped into that interior world known only to himself. “I am becoming freer,” he said. “I feel that I have found myself more in 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” (W. de Kooning, quoted in Din Peters, “Willem de Kooning: Paintings 1960-1982,” Studio International 196 (August 1983), 4). Indeed, critics remarked on the newfound freedom in his work, which became evident in the loose, airy quality that emerged in the early 1980s. Executed on a large scale, these paintings opened up like a breath of fresh air, with wide areas of luminous white paint that had been thinned and scraped to a translucent sheen, revealing hints of other colors incorporated during the course of his proves. Slender wisps of brightly-colored “ribbons” of color applied directly with a lyrical, swooping brush are the predominant forms, rendered in primary colors applied from tube paints on his palette with brushes, rather than the frothy oil paints de Kooning concocted just a few years earlier. Though he may labor over a single line for days or weeks at a time, smoothing out its edges with a palette knife or his thumb, he wanted the paintings to appear “effortless.” “Those lines on the late paintings look easy,” de Kooning’s assistant, Tom Ferrara explained, “but a lot of times he would spend days working on one edge” (T. Ferrara, quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swan, De Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2005, p. 602).
De Kooning typically liked to work with many paintings around him in the studio, often taking charcoal and tracing over a desired line or form from a previous painting for use in the next. In this last series, de Kooning frequently worked by drawing charcoal lines directly onto the canvas itself. Once this preliminary drawing was completed, de Kooning labored over until the painting until it matched his particular vision. Familiar forms begin to emerge within the late paintings by benefit of their proximity, and certain motifs float freely in the mind’s eye in homage of other great artists.
Nearing the end of de Kooning’s output, Untitled VII takes on a new freedom and lightness, evocative of Matisse, an artist with whom de Kooning clearly identified with in his last years. Having long admired Matisse for both his early paintings and late paper cutouts, de Kooning’s late paintings reflect his predecessor’s undulating lines and bold, sharply defined forms that illustrate both figure and landscape, as illustrated in Matisse’s masterful cutout La Gerbe from 1953. “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). Other possible influences include Arshile Gorky’s Garden in Sochi. The biomorphic quality of the abstracted shapes in Untitled VII, particularly the drooping red form with its three pointed ends, parallels Gorky’s basic visual vocabulary. Certainly, the primary colors de Kooning maintains across the entire series pay homage to Mondrian, “as though reflected in water,” as his biographers have so aptly described (M. Stevens and A. Swann, Ibid., p. 602).
De Kooning’s paintings, like those of Picasso, Matisse and Monet before him, reached their ultimate expression only in the last decade of his life. These final paintings are poised on the knife’s edge of brilliance, equal parts rapturous and eccentric. “De Kooning’s last paintings are hard to describe,” the New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl has succinctly written, and indeed, the late works defy easy categorization, and yet they are the lasting contribution of one of the 20th century’s most beloved and brilliant artists. (P. Schjeldahl, “Ghosts: The Dazzling Mystery of de Kooning’s Last Paintings,” The New Yorker, May 7, 2001).
signed ‘de Kooning’ (on the stretcher)
Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
Chicago, Richard Gray Gallery, Willem de Kooning. The New Paintings, May-June 1987.
"Iconic Work By Jeff Koons To Highlight Sotheby's Sale of Contemporary Art," Antiques and The Arts Weekly, 06 May 2011, p. 37 (illustrated in color).
M. Rus, "Classical Inclination," Architectural Digest, vol. 69, no. 9, September 2012, p. 159 (installation view illustrated).
Xavier Fourcade, New York
Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago
Private collection, 1987
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 10 May 2011, lot 34
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner