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  • Provenance

    Acquired directly from the artist, 1985
    Xavier Fourcade, Inc., New York
    Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York
    Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

  • Exhibited

    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, 1992
    Bremen, 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, 1997
    New York, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Willem de Kooning: Vellums, March 21 – April 21, 2001

  • Literature

    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)

  • Catalogue Essay

    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). While light had always permeated his earlier paintings to an elated end, he had yet to reach the grand finale of the 1980s, where a marriage of movement and illumination would reach a rapturous peak, as exemplified in the present lot, Untitled XVIII, 1984.

    Though, toward the end of the 1970s, de Kooning’s much-celebrated artistic career became subject to the demons of addiction and an aging mind and body, he was able to revive his painting career in dramatic form, adopting a modern master as his muse: “When I met him 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.

    As his output became increasingly prolific in the 1980s, de Kooning devised multiple techniques to alleviate the physical demands of the aging artist’s creative yield. Among them was a mechanical easel, which could be rotated 360 degrees and raised or lowered as de Kooning saw fit. In addition, de Kooning regularly placed foam behind a stretched canvas, allowing him to paint or scrape with greater pressure without tearing the surface. This proved immensely useful, as the wizened master still painted with intimidating intensity; de Kooning’s immense career of seeing and making art culminated with a rich display of technical bravura, as he scraped with a spatula, sanded, and used his fingers and palms with ferocious vigor. In keeping with chosen guide, he also utilized Henri Matisse’s own compositional techniques—he spackled his studio floor white to bounce light onto his canvasses, much as Matisse famously covered his grounds with newspapers. De Kooning also duplicated Matisse’s use of an external memory: he photographed the stageby- stage development of a canvas in order to harness fleeting ideas.

    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 canvasses from the 1980s share this size). At the time of 1984’s Untitled XVIII, it was not uncommon for de Kooning to be selfreferential 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). De Kooning’s studio in the 1980s was the very picture of artistic conversation: paintings lay about unfinished, yet they actively affected the evolution of those around them.

    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 six-by-seven 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 tubish 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, is prone to a wealth of influence: Untitled XVIII’s cubist figure distortion mixes with the linearity of Mondrian’s neo-plasticism. De Kooning even recreates shapes of his own from a former stage of his career, such as Elegy, 1939. 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 a 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, de Kooning abandons the lushness of fauvist color saturation (typical of his canvasses 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 canvasses of 1985, many of which share the spare dependence 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. In essence, he paints shapes of light with no body at all.

    Yet it was not Mondrian whom de Kooning chose to guide him through the straits of recovery and artistic genesis, and in the present lot, de Kooning’s inspiration from Matisse is clear. As one who often asserted that art is the way that one should live, de Kooning’s Untitled XVIII, 1984, rises into a realm of its own, as its lightness and grace recall Matisse’s Le Danseur, 1937-1938. The effortless movement of de Kooning’s figures, along with the heavenly quality of their chromatic scheme, may seem rather independent of de Kooning’s earlier career and style. But “style” is a term that de Kooning had always despised, for it reduces the artist to merely an artistic follower. De Kooning’s is a career that, when faced with “isms”, always escapes its stylistic prisons. After all, it was not Matisse’s overall “style” that de Kooning was attempting to emulate; it was Matisse’s natural rhythm of creation that he showed in his art. It was this particular joy that helped de Kooning to defeat his demon of addiction, and it is the resultant floating quality that ultimately glows through in de Kooning’s canvasses of the 1980s.

    In the end, de Kooning’s Untitled XVIII is reciprocal in its nature: it inspires the utmost joy in the viewer. It is a joy that, when the viewer surrenders himself to the whims of the picture before him, bestows the observer with only the most wonderful impulses of emotion: as critic Ralph Ubl states, on viewing the canvas, “the viewer should yield to the movement of de Kooning’s art, following it in its various directions, oscillating together with the picture between the horizontal and the vertical, thus experiencing the change of orientation, the dissipation and refocusing of body consciousness.”(“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. 92). In other words, when we see, we dance.

    “Later, as I get older, it is such a nice thing to see a nice Matisse…When people say my later paintings are like Matisse, I say, ‘You don’t say,’ and I’m very flattered.”
    (Willem de Kooning quoted in R. Storr, “At Last Light”, Willem de Kooning, the Late Paintings, the 1980s, New York, 1995, p. 71)

  • Artist Biography

    Willem de Kooning

    American • 1904 - 1997

    Born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Willem de Kooning moved to the United States in his early 20s, arriving in Manhattan by 1927. A founding member of the Abstract Expressionist movement in New York, de Kooning was a contemporary of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and of course his wife, Elaine de Kooning. Having claimed that “flesh is the reason why oil painting was invented,” de Kooning is best known for his rapid, forceful brushwork and thickly impastoed paint in evoking the human body, even as some of his contemporaries moved towards pure abstraction. Like the other New York School painters, de Kooning was a proponent of “Action Painting,” which emphasized the physical aspect of the work, eschewing the idea that painting was necessarily a careful, precise art form.

    By the 1960s, the artist was living and working in East Hampton, where he managed to breathe new life into his work after decades in an urban environment and remained there until his death in 1997 at the age of 92. De Kooning’s works reside in leading institutions worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., Tate, London, and Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

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Untitled XVIII

oil on canvas
88 x 77 in. (223.5 x 195.6 cm)
Signed “de Kooning” on the stretcher.

$4,000,000 - 6,000,000 

Sold for $3,442,500

Contemporary Art Part I

7 November 2011
New York