'I am becoming freer, 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 in the way I use paint and the brush'
(W. de Kooning, speaking in 1983, Willem de Kooning, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1995, p. 199).
With its densely painted white surface and its smooth interlacing fluid lines of blue, red and black weaving a continuous sense of motion while also hinting at the presence of a figure in a landscape, Untitled XXVIII is an impressive work seeming to mark the coming together of many strands in de Kooning's oeuvre. Executed in the sparse and reductive style that de Kooning first developed in the early 1980s, it is a picture that appears to epitomize the artist's belief that 'there is a time in life when you just take a walk: and you walk into your own landscape' (W. de Kooning, Sketchbook, quoted in Willem de Kooning Figure and Light, exh. cat., New York, 2010, p. 52).
Figures in 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 altogether surprising. So corporeal is de Kooning's art that his so-called abstraction always hovered on the edge of figuration. Here, the easy, flowing forms of de Kooning's brushwork seem to float around the vague outline of a figure that calls to mind the fluid elegance and joyous grace of line to be seen in the late work Matisse - an artist with whom de Kooning clearly identified himself in his last years. Painted in 1983, Untitled XXVIII is a work that belongs to the first period in which the full reductive force of de Kooning's late style first emerged. Shunning all except the primary colours (even yellow has been abandoned here) and concentrating solely on thin meandering brushstrokes to delineate the path of the painter's brush through the apparent void of white, the painting articulates a near-figurative sequence of abstract curves, twists and turns which, like Futurist lines of force or a pictorial ballet, both suggest and reflect the motion and form of the human body. Echoing the artist's own intuitive journey of discovery in the creation of the work as well as the angular motion of his own body as he has made the work, the painting expresses a rich, fluid cohesive surface, rippling with apparent human interaction and bodily movement.
It was in 1980 that de Kooning made the last of the famous and dramatic shifts in style that had hitherto characterised so much of his artistic career. Entering what would prove to be the final phase of his career, de Kooning began to paint in a more deliberate, assured and reductive way than ever before. His raw splashes of paint and the energetic semi-random sweeps of a heavily-laden brush were now replaced in these new works by a series of assured meandering ribbons of paint tracing their way over an apparently infinite white background. Simpler, but no less mysterious, these distinctive lines generated a sense of a cohesive and animated surface in much the same way as his earlier work but in a subtler, gentler and altogether more elegant and refined manner. If de Kooning's sumptuous flowing visceral painting of the 1970s can be seen as 'flesh without the bones' as one critic put it, then this new style was more 'the bones without the flesh' (M. Prather, Willem de Kooning Paintings exh. cat. Washington, D.C., 1994, p. 200).
Much of the former aggression and physical struggle of de Kooning's work is absent from the new works which now favour of a simpler, more joyous, and 'pure' form of painting. This feature of de Kooning's late work reflects not only the artist's maturity and familiarisation with his working practice but also the profound presence in his mind at this time of Matisse. According to his assistant Tom Ferrara, Matisse was a regular topic of de Kooning's conversation throughout the 1980s. It was the pure 'uncomplicatedness' of Matisse's paintings, de Kooning said, that so appealed to him. 'There is no ism there - he's just painting a painting' he told Courtney Sale in 1982, and it was this aspect that de Kooning now found he wanted to achieve with his own work. To reduce his former anxieties and struggle and to remove the often tempestuous psychological overtones from his work, letting his working practice evolve into the purest form of itself. Previously always tense and even nervous about his art, de Kooning, who through the intervention of his wife Elaine, had now finally abandoned his addiction to alcohol which had debilitated him for much of the late 1970s, was now more at ease with his art and with his ability than perhaps ever before. 'You get old, you get used to yourself,' he remarked, 'I used to be so nervous I got palpitations. Now I don't have that trouble. I see the canvas, and I begin... But you have to keep on the very edge of something, all the time, or the picture dies' (W. de Kooning, quoted in op. cit., London, 1995, p. 199).
As films of de Kooning working on his late paintings show, de Kooning worked exceedingly swiftly and fluidly on his paintings of the 1980s, indeed his productivity increased immeasurably during this period. As always de Kooning often used passages from drawings and earlier paintings as well as photographs of other works in various states of completion, as the starting point. He also retained the practice of working on several paintings at the same time, keeping many favourite works around him to help inspire, he hoped, the creation of others. In addition, in the mid-1980s he actually began to use a technique he had long talked about using and had even, famously, persuaded Franz Kline to employ in the 1950s; the magnification and projection of his own images as prompts for painting. Many of the lines that define the form of his 1980s paintings were directly traced from projected lines of earlier works onto his canvas.
It was these processes that allowed again for the increased distilling of his earlier painterly practices into the new, sparser and more refined form. Nevertheless, de Kooning still continued the practice of painting and scraping off in the build-up of the surface of his paintings that he had used in so many earlier works. Now, however, he was more reluctant to let these corrections show through the surface so clearly and therefore, he often overpainted his amendments with the thick white that forms the background of these late paintings. It is this seemingly infinite white space of the backgrounds of the 1980s paintings that ultimately defines them. Having reduced his painterly means to what, in the end, he was always best at, the incisive and intuitive touch of his line, he set this against the open emptiness of an infinite white space. In this way, these works are startlingly reflective of not only de Kooning's new-found sobriety and the coming to terms with himself that he established in his self-imposed isolation on Long Island but also of his decision to stubbornly continue to work into his old age in the manner that he had always done, using painting as the entire raison d'être of his life. Against a white void, the very act of painting is here displayed as both the path of life itself and as a way of living. 'Just because you're getting older', he said at this time, 'doesn't mean you're doing it better. But you can't stop either, or you'll be lost. So you go ahead, even though you don't know where you're going, because you never know. You just know how to leave from where you've been' (W. de Kooning, speaking in 1983, Willem de Kooning, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1995, p. 202).
Oil on canvas
Property of an Estate
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning , 1980s, Paintings, United States of America, Post War
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
88 x 77 3/8 in. (223.5 x 196.5cm.)
London, Gagosian Gallery, Imageless Icons: Abstract
Thoughts, 2005 (illustrated in colour, pp. 31 and 98; installation view illustrated in colour, p. 86, and detail illustrated in colour, p. 18).
New York, L&M Arts, Willem de Kooning 1981-1986,
2007, no. 11, p. 79 (illustrated in colour, p. 41).
Los Angeles, L&M Arts, Willem de Kooning: Figure & Light, 2010- 2011, no. 22 (illustrated in colour, p. 67).
The Collection of the Artist.
Private Collection, Los Angeles.
Gagosian Gallery, London.
Private Collection, USA.
Anon. sale, Christie's New York, 8 November 2011, lot 39.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price and at 20% on the buyer's premium.