'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. Because when I'm falling, I'm doing all right; when I'm slipping, I say, hey, this is interesting! It's when I'm standing upright that it bothers me; I'm not doing so good; I'm stiff. As a matter of fact, I'm really slipping most of the time, into that glimpse. I'm like a slipping glimpser.' (Willem de Kooning cited in Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, De Kooning : An American Master, New York 2005, p. 571).
Painted in 1977, Untitled XXV is one of a remarkable series of large oils that de Kooning made in a sudden burst of activity in the mid-1970s. Having been absorbed throughout much of the early '70s with the making of sculpture and the new material possibilities it provided him, de Kooning had painted relatively few pictures and those that he had painted had not come easily and took a long time. In the Spring of 1975 what had seemed to the artist a comparatively long dry spell of painterly inactivity suddenly came to an end. In a burst of creativity that was to last until 1978 de Kooning found himself once again reveling in the act of painting as a joyous and deeply sensual experience. Over this period, the pictures "just poured out of me like water" the artist remarked. Between the heavy drinking bouts that continued to plague him, de Kooning said, "I could not put down the brush". It was as if a weight had been lifted and anxious not to loose the feeling and the sense of momentum that these works generated in him, de Kooning focused on his work intently over the next three years, growing increasingly reluctant to stray from his home and studio on Long Island. "I made those paintings one after the other, no trouble at all," he said. "I couldn't miss. It's a nice feeling. It's strange. It's a man at a gambling table (who) feels that he can't lose. But when he walks away with the dough, he knows that he can't do that again. Because then it gets self-conscious. I wasn't self-conscious. I just did it." (De Kooning quoted in M. Prather, Willem de Kooning Paintings exh. cat. Washington. D.C. 1994, p. 197).
These paintings of the mid-1970s form the culmination of much that de Kooning had attempted in the past but never resolved. When he had first moved to the Springs on Long Island de Kooning had enjoyed the unique landscape of the area and this in many ways had entered and informed his work. Now in the mid-'70s he became increasingly preoccupied with his immediate environment, its light and topography as well as, in particular, the wateriness of the landscape around Louse Point out to which he would often cycle. 'When I moved into this house' de Kooning observed in 1976, 'everything seemed self-evident. The space, the light, the trees--I just accepted it without thinking about it much. Now I look around with new eyes. I think its all a kind of miracle.' (De Kooning quoted in M. Prather, Willem de Kooning Paintings exh. cat. Washington. D.C. 1994, p. 197).
At Louse Point de Kooning would spend hours observing the water and its effects. He became captivated by the shimmering surface of water and its ability to reflect and merge the imagery of the land, sky, figures and itself in a constantly shifting abstract surface of color and form. It was this mercurial effect that he began again to try to emulate in his paintings, attempting to translate it into the equally fluid but more materially substantial and plastic medium of paint. Following on from a series of paintings loosely based on the theme of the figure in the landscape in which de Kooning internalized the outer scene as if it were both a picture of the inner experience of the landscape by the figure situated in it and a record of such interaction, de Kooning now began to create works that suggested a totality of expression.
Although often completely abstract, hints of natural or figurative forms sometimes emerge in these paintings like electric glimpses or fleeting visual moments that suggest the real world of nature and objects and also the path of the painterly process and the continual passing of time. Emulating the continuous flux of the natural world and enthralled by the new fluid freedom he had discovered in these looser. Freer but also more complex works, de Kooning remarked that he had the 'feeling of being on the other side of nature'. Everything existed in a continuous flow of activity with forms emerging and slipping back into the fluid logic of the painting as a whole. With regard to the female figure that had often materialized with such vigor in so many of his earlier landscape paintings de Kooning now found that 'I could sustain the figure all the time because it could change all the time. She could get almost upside down, or not be there, or come back again, she could be any size.' (cited in Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, De Kooning: An American Master, New York 2005, p. 563).
For de Kooning more than for most artists, painting was, what he described as, 'a way of living' and it has often been said of his paintings that none are ever really finished works because they are all episodes in his continuously ongoing way of life. De Kooning saw his paintings this way too. Not only would he work on several paintings at the same time, constantly referring from one to the other, but throughout his career he would borrow elements from one work or period of work and, if he felt it necessary, convenient or fitting, translate it directly into a new work. He often layered his paintings with a variety of passages from different drawings in a collated way so that his painterly form included a collage of motifs vying with and against one another and generating a highly animated and diverse surface. As a result one of the key features of de Kooning's paintings is that they never sit still but are all seemingly caught in a moment of dynamic if also episodic transition or evolution.
Responding to a practice he had begun through making sculpture of paring the clay down to nothing in order to start over on a sculpture, in the mid-1970s de Kooning added to this technique of building up the imagery of his paintings by also scraping it off and paring it down, even sanding its surface in such a way that often only a faint trace of his earlier efforts remained. Onto this animated platform of vaguely distinguishable line and form, de Kooning found he could build new forms as if deliberately referring to the fact that all his work was a constantly ongoing process built on what had gone before and yet, still, as ever, dependent on the vitality and urgency of the present moment in order to be born.
De Kooning's use of scraping off as a means of building his painting's image is another aspect of his work that lends it a pressing sense of temporality. The marks of a previous session showing through underneath newer marks generated a mysterious sense of depth within his work. It is a depth that belies the painting's sense of surface and suggests also that they expose and reflect a reality or a glimpse of a reality lying beyond the realm of the purely sensual or visual. De Kooning's embracing of the ambiguities between the figurative and the abstract, between the figure and the landscape and between forms and patterns made at various stages in the creation of the work all powerfully combine to convey a sense of the world as something experienced rather than purely seen. Full of uncertainties and corrections, of seemingly confused and conflicting marks, the artist's mastery of his medium magically combines his daubs, splashes, scratches, and his tense febrile but energy-infused line into a cohesive and understandable, if not altogether distinct, image. As his young lover of these years Emilie Kilgore recalled of de Kooning's working practice, 'How much time there was concentrating and looking, sitting in that chair! Maybe having a cigarette. But still just looking with such intensity. And then getting up and walking over...still with his eye on the painting and then Kershewwww! Everything leading up to it was so long and then he got there and it was always pretty quick.' (cited in Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, De Kooning : An American Master, New York 2005, pp. 542-3).
The compositional technique de Kooning employed to unite these almost instinctive marks was, he said, 'not like Cubism' but more 'like Cezannism'. Nothing is ever defined. Boundaries, intersections and outlines appear, disappear and intermingle at apparent random yet all are inextricably linked to the innate logic of the painting as a complete, cohesive entity. Like the surface of a river, de Kooning's paintings are a plane of form that despite its shimmering and disparate activity holds together into a unity through this ability to convey a unique perception of the world solely by the means of its own material: paint. In this he emulates one of his heroes Chaim Soutine, whose Ceret landscapes in particular use a similarly heavy but also fluid build up of painted matter to lend his work a powerful earthy material quality. It was this 'transfiguration' as de Kooning once described it, that de Kooning sought in his own work hoping to marry the physical and material pleasure of his craft with that which he took from the visual experience of reality.
Untitled XXV is a joyous and heavily material expression of this holding together of disparate painterly form within the frame of an almost square canvas. Layer after layer of painted form and colour is built up and overlaid in a kind of spatial play within the frame of the picture to maintain a dynamic and tenuous balance. Somehow rooted in nature yet seemingly absent on any figurative form, the painting articulates a landscape of painterly form brought alive and integrated with a sense of the human through the length, scale, form and emotive power of the artist's vigorous brushwork and the twisted painterly gesture. 'Mile Davis' de Kooning once observed, 'bends the notes. He doesn't play them, he bends them. I bend the paint.' (cited in Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, De Kooning : An American Master, New York 2005, p. 562)
Oil on canvas
PROPERTY FROM AN AMERICAN COLLECTION
Willem de Kooning
New York, Xavier Fourcade Inc., 20th Century Paintings and Sculptures: Brancusi to Lichtenstein, February-April, 1978, n.p., (illustrated in color).
Fairfield, Conneticut, Museum of Art, Sciences and Industry, Fairfield Arts Festival, Artist of the Year, June 1978.
Cedar Falls, University of Northern Iowa Gallery of Art; St. Louis Art Museum; Cincinnati, Contemporary Arts Museum; Akron Art Institute, de Kooning: 1969-1978, October 1978-April 1979, n.p., no. 22 (illustrated in color).
Seattle, Richard Hines Gallery, Willem de Kooning: Paintings, Sculpture, Drawings, January-March 1980 (illustrated on exhibition announcement).
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline, February-May 1996, p. 120, fig. 121 (illustrated in color).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
77 x 88 in. (195.7 x 223.5 cm.)
N. Baldwin, "Review," Des Moines Sunday Registrar, October 22, 1978, p. 16 (illustrated).
Xavier Fourcade, Inc., New York
Mr. Richard C. Hedreen, Seattle
Mr. Donald Feuerstein, New York
Private Collection, Europe
Stephen Mazoh, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner