"You know the real world, this so-called real world, is just something you put up with, like everybody else. I'm in my element when I am a little bit out of this world: then I'm in the real world--I'm on the beam." Willem de Kooning, 1960sReflecting on a past replete with women and landscapes, the translucence and light that radiates from Untitled XVIII summons a dream or reverie, from which its creator, Willem de Kooning, seems to have emerged in order to create his last great cycle of paintings. A masterwork from de Kooning's final decade of production, Untitled XVIII emerges as the signature example of the artist's 1984 works. Characterized by Robert Storr as one of, if not the last, great cycle of paintings by the artist the critic and curator emphasizes, "Particularly in the works from 1984, the results are paintings of an openness and freedom not seen before, paintings that are extraordinarily lyrical, immediately sensual, and exhilarating; of all of the paintings of the 1980's, they are the most diaphanous and drawing-like." (R. Storr, quoted in Willem de Kooning, The Late Paintings, The 1980s, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1995, p. 28). Seeking throughout his life to capture the indeterminate, fluid state between figuration and abstraction, the late canvases poetically evoke the deconstructed female figure with more grace and elegance than otherwise observed throughout the artist's extensive oeuvre.Oscillating between delicacy and boldness, Untitled XVIII is formed of countless shapes of linear inventions. A gentle cascade of whip-lashed red and blue strokes rhythmically emerges from the cool wash of white and palest of pinks. Floating contours of myriad variety push and pull the composition into a state of ever-moving tension. Biomorphic forms, giving the allusion of sumptuous nudes, evolve out of the rolling bends of primary colored strokes, and planes of white infused with soft billowing color. And yet, the allusions and external imagery are only secondary to the commanding presence of the glowing canvas with flowing lines of paint, in its highly abstract composition.Perhaps one reason that Willem de Kooning has been so energetically embraced as an American artist is his relentless devotion to optimism. In his seven-decade career, one wholly rooted in the joy of light both in composition and in subject, de Kooning found it difficult to resist the impulse to revel in the charm of existence; even in his early years, through the dark of the 1930s, his “light-filled colors differ diametrically from the muddy tones employed by the majority of Depression-period artists.”(P. Cummings, “The Drawings of Willem de Kooning”, Willem de Kooning: Drawings, Paintings, Sculpture, New York, 1983, p. 13). Light had always permeated his earlier paintings to an elated end but truly came to the fore in de Kooning’s late paintings of the 1980s, where a marriage of movement and illumination reach a rapturous peak, as exemplified in the present lot, Untitled XVIII, 1984.De Kooning’s much-celebrated artistic career had reached a precarious position by the late 1970s, but he was able to revive himself in time by adopting a particular modern master as his muse. “When I met him [de Kooning] in 1979, he was taking some time off from painting, but he was thinking about it a lot and spoke about the desire to change his way of working. Matisse was the artist he chose to guide him through the change and the thing he most admired about Matisse was what he referred to as ‘that floating quality’ (a la ‘Dance’). He also wanted to move away from the cubist structures of Cezanne and Picasso and toward the loose, organic structures of Matisse. Basically, he chose to move from the anchored figure/ground relationship and toward one that floats.” (T. Ferrara, “Remembering de Kooning”, Willem de Kooning 1981-1986, New York, 2007, p. 75). In 1981, he rapidly began to produce many of his most minimalist, sensuous, and beautiful paintings.De Kooning’s method in the 1980s shifted greatly as the decade wore on, but he maintained a few constants until he painted his last picture in 1990. He began to favor enthusiastically a slightly off-square canvas, with a measurement of 88 by 77 inches (most of his canvases from the 1980s share this size). At the time of 1984’s Untitled XVIII, it was not uncommon for de Kooning to be self-referential in his painting; many of his canvasses lay in his studio across from one another, some finished, some yet to be completed, many influencing the production of one another. Yet, a “completed painting” may be an imperfect way of looking at it. “He could only evaluate the success of a work when he was ready to take on the position of the viewer, standing back and scrutinizing his work. The importance of this step is illuminated by a comment of his longtime confidant and interpreter Thomas B. Hess, who claimed that de Kooning never considered a painting finished upon the final brushstroke, but only when he decided how it should be hung.” (R. Ubl, “From the Painting to the Picture: The Question of Orientation in the Work of Willem de Kooning”, de Kooning. Paintings 1960-1980, Ostfildren-Ruit, 2005, p. 97). The immensity of the current lot, compounded with its sheer brightness, conjures in the viewer an enlivening fascination. The oil on canvas fills the entire painting, as the stark white background fills every edge of its more than seven-by-six feet. In addition, de Kooning’s orientation is entirely intentional, yielding a creation that shimmers vertically before us rather than lies prone on its side. Upon the blaze of the achromatic background, lines of only three primary colors—black, red, and blue—tumble and dash with both speed and comic lethargy. De Kooning’s scraper bequeaths the lines with either great breadth or very little sweep, flattening his squeegeed oils into one another’s paths with precision and delicacy. The lines often thin in their centers, lending them a tube-ish quality and one that gives them a three-dimensional appearance as they whisk along. The upper-middle portion lays claim to the only messages of black in the picture, and, through their horizontal orientation, they evoke a playful horizon—one populated by hints of landscape and figurative dance. Absent of any kind of color fill, these strokes dictate their own boundaries, but whether they stand alone or interact is a question for the viewer. On occasion, two colors meander as one, treading lightly along the other’s path, as in the upper- and lower-right corners. De Kooning defies his Abstract Expressionist label in suggesting a plentitude of forms within his picture; a figure in the center of the picture suggests a female breast, reminiscent of his Women of the 1940s and 50s. In addition, a scrawl of blue hints at a squawking mouth, and dominates the mood of the lower left portion. As the lines jazz by each other in their own respective avenues, their limited chromatic scheme actually lends dynamism to their movement: it is as if three groups are enchanting each other with their unique manners of gliding. They are “unconnected, in flux, impinging on one another or crossing or standing out against the ground like curving incisions” (J. Merkert, “Stylelessness as Principle: The Paintings of Willem de Kooning”, Willem de Kooning: Drawings, Paintings, Sculpture, New York, 1983, p. 123).Indeed, we find in Untitled XVIII, 1984, many of the forms that fascinated de Kooning for the entirety of his artistic career. Though he considered himself his own painter and not one to be confined to a style or movement, one finds many movements in this picture. While he is most commonly grouped with the Abstract Expressionists, de Kooning himself admits that he, like any artist, was prone to a wealth of influence: Untitled XVIII’s cubist figure distortion mixes with the linear abstract tendencies of his New York School cohort Franz Kline and Mondrian’s neo-plasticism. De Kooning found himself drawn to these essential features over and over in his lifetime. As Thomas Hess states, “throughout his career de Kooning has invented, enlarged, and perfected an extraordinary repertory of shapes, some simple, some complex, and in the work of inventing and perfecting them he has gone back continuously to older shapes, re-creating new ones from them, as if he were impelled to bring a whole life’s work into each section of each new picture.”(G. Garrels, “Three Toads in the Garden: Line, Color, and Form”, Willem de Kooning, the late paintings, the 1980s, New York, 1995, p. 18). The end result of Untitled XVIII, 1984, then, is figurative movement and historical interplay at its maximum.Falling in the chronological middle of his work in the 1980s, 1984’s Untitled XVIII is an eye-opening study of the artist’s past and future, one in which he begins to anatomize his own form and his influences; in the present lot, he abandons the lushness of fauvist color saturation (typical of his canvases in 1982 and 1983) in favor of painterly freedom in movement and lightness. Untitled XVIII, 1984, prefigures the continuing integration of forms that was to follow in de Kooning’s canvases of 1985, many of which share the economy of means of red, blue, and black line on painted white. Though his deeply animated infatuation with Fauvist dramatics falls away, it lends the piece poise in its flight, and, as each line lives free from any attachment to the tyranny of color wash, it suggests myriad shapes in boundless communication. In the spare arena of de Kooning’s canvas, we find the shapes in a state of endless conversation and movement; as they whirl along with one another in varying tempers and tempos, their blissful choreography beams with warmth. De Kooning discovered a means with which he could compress a joyous image into a single line. Luminous, lyrical and utterly sensual, works such as Untitled XVIII 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. 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 reveling 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)
Oil on canvas
Signed "de Kooning" on the reverse stretcher bar.
Willem de Kooning
It is our opinion that this work is in excellent condition. This work is comprised of oil on canvas, supported by a 7 member keyable wood stretcher, in an aluminum frame. The surrounding turnover edge is taped and coming unadhered at points. The artist's use of materials and method of production is evident throughout. This work has been viewed under UV-filtered light with no evidence of inpainting.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University, Jasper Johns, Richard Serra and Willem de Kooning: Works Loaned by Artists in Honor of Neil and Angelica Rudenstine, January 18 – August 9, 1992Bremen, Neues Museum Weserburg, In Vollkommener Freiheit: Picasso, Guston, Miro, de Kooning/Painting for Themselves: Late Works: Picasso, Guston, Miro, de Kooning, October 20, 1996 – February 7, 1997New York, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Willem de Kooning: Vellums, March 21 – April 21, 2001
88 x 77 in. (223.5 x 195.6 cm)
M. Corral, H. Zech, D. Cameron, In Vollkommener Freiheit: Picasso, Guston, Miro, de Kooning/Painting for Themselves: Late Works: Picasso, Guston, Miro, de Kooning, Bremen, 1996, p. 183, pl. 8 (illustrated)M. Kimmelman. “The Lives They Lived; Life is Short, Art is Long,” The New York Times Magazine, January 4, 1998, p. 20 (illustrated)
Acquired directly from the artist, 1985Xavier Fourcade, Inc., New YorkMitchell-Innes & Nash, New YorkMatthew Marks Gallery, New York New York, Phillips de Pury & Company, Contemporary Art Part I, November 7, 2011, lot 23Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
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