Willem de Kooning - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, May 18, 2017 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Johanna Liesbeth de Kooning Trust, New York
    Acquavella Galleries, New York
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    London, Royal Academy of Arts, A New Spirit in Painting, January 15 - March 18, 1981, no. 83, p. 220 (illustrated)
    New York, Gagosian Gallery, Willem de Kooning: The Last Beginning, September 18 - October 27, 2007 (illustrated on an exhibition poster)

  • Literature

    Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings, The 1980s, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Art and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 1995, no. 3, p. 13 (illustrated in English catalogue), no. 3, p. 13 (illustrated in Dutch catalogue)
    Gregory Montreuil, "Journey's End," Gay City News, October 13, 2007 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    With Untitled II the late Willem de Kooning presents us with a magnificent tour-de force of his painterly virtuosity. Free-flowing brushstrokes of deep violet traverse the monumental canvas, folding in and out out of passages of radiant white, luminous yellow, orange, crimson and vermillion paint – coalescing around the center of the canvas in a dynamic dance of pure form and color. Heralding the dawning of a significant new phase in de Kooning’s oeuvre, Untitled II displays the signature raw splashes of paint and frenetic energy of the artist’s “pastoral" allover abstractions from his apex years of the late1970s while simultaneously foreshadowing the infinite toned white and meandering ribbons of his iconic late output in the 1980s. Executed in 1980, this seminal painting also speaks to the pivotal moment of transition in de Kooning’s life and artistic practice for it was in this year - at the age of 76 - that de Kooning stopped drinking. While suffering from alcoholism and depression for most of the 1970s, the death of two critical supporters and confidantes, Harold Rosenberg and Thomas Hess, had led de Kooning on a severe downward spiral from 1978 onwards. A triumphant testament to de Kooning’s resolution to overcome a period of personal and creative crisis, Untitled II is notably one of less than ten paintings de Kooning completed in 1980 and was notably exhibited in the following year at the Royal Academy of Art’s A New Spirit in Painting exhibition in London.

    Willem de Kooning, who rose to critical acclaim with his ferocious Women in the 1950s, was among the few principal figures of the Abstract Expressionist movement to see the 1980s. As art historian Robert Storr so aptly observed, “One would not have predicted for Willem de Kooning a great old age. Among the leading figures of a hard-living generation, he seemed by talent and by temperament to belong to a romantic tradition of artists whose work burned the physical and psychic fuel of their being with devastating speed and completeness” (Robert Storr, “A Painter’s Testament: De Kooning in the Eighties”, MoMA Magazine, Winter/Spring 1997, n.p.). The baroque painterly hedonism that characterized de Kooning’s mid-career paintings in the 1960s and 1970s stood in stark contrast to the deep anxiety that tormented de Kooning, his lifestyle taking a serious toll on his health and sometimes drastically reducing his productivity. As such, Untitled II attests to what Robert Storr has identified as the “nearly miraculous recovery of focus and ambition” de Kooning underwent after several years of episodic studio activity and marks the beginning of his celebrated final chapter, which he embark upon with newfound vigor in 1980.

    Situated at this pivotal turning point, Untitled II takes a unique position within de Kooning’s oeuvre. On the one hand, the heavily painterliness of the background and energetic sweeps of the brush evoke de Kooning’s universally celebrated “pastoral" allover abstractions from the late 1970s, calling in particular such masterpieces as Untitled XI, 1975 (Art Institute of Chicago) or Untitled XXV, 1977. On the other hand, the present work also exemplifies the new-found sense of luminosity and open-endedness that de Kooning would further develop in a radically new visual language in the 1980s. Shifting away from the tightly organized compositions and the heavily worked, dense canvases of his earlier years, de Kooning here puts forward a fluid space in which form, line and color organically and rhythmically blend into each and dance around the crimson vortex at center - foreshadowing the infinite toned whites and ribbonlike brushstrokes that would become the signature of his output in the 1980s. As de Kooning fittingly stated, ”Miles Davis bends the notes. He doesn't play them, he bends them. I bend the paint" (Willem de Kooning quoted in Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, De Kooning : An American Master, New York 2005, p. 562)

    With its free-floating swathes of paint and meandering brushstrokes, Untitled II at first glance appears to be the result of a spontaneous, immediate expression. As with de Kooning’s early works, however, this work is similarly the result of a prolonged and considered creative process. Pursuing the compositional technique of ‘fitting-in’, de Kooning would continuously interweave forms, surfaces, gestures and lines until the desired internal balance had been achieved. “Fitting-in”, de Kooning once noted, was “where modern art came from”…The way I do it, it’s not like Cubism, it’s like Cezannism, almost”. Like the seminal Untitled I, 1980, which was exhibited at the Whitney Biennial in 1981, the present painting importantly demonstrates a gradual loosening of fit that would reach its pinnacle in de Kooning’s starkly reduced compositions a few years later. While de Kooning still interlaces and spreads the tracks of his deft brush and labors lovingly over certain passages, in other instances he cancels out vast areas with swathes of floating white paint. This loosening of fit went hand in hand with de Kooning’s innovative technique of painting his regularly proportioned canvases through continuous 90 degree rotations. Often beginning in the upper right hand corner, de Kooning would build up areas of color and lines using a blend of turpentine, stand oil and tube paint in one particular segment before rotating the canvas and working on a new area - allowing passages to overlap and feed into each other. Furthermore he was working with a taper’s knife - a flat-bladed tool used primarily in drywall construction – which allowed him to stretch out the paint with fluid movements and maintain a smooth surface by scraping away the traces of previous layers of tube paint. In contrast to the heavy, thick surfaces of the late 1970s, paintings such as the present one are imbued with an unexpected lightness and transparency.

    Freed from a fixed vertical-horizontal axis, Untitled II proposes an open-ended, fluid space in which color and form seem to be continuously shifting. As with de Kooning’s greatest paintings from the 1970s, its animate surface attests to the profound impact the natural environs of East Hampton, New York, continued to have on on Kooning’s painterly practice. As the artist once noted: “I wanted to get in touch with nature. Not painting scenes from nature, but to get a feeling of that light that was very appealing to me, here particularly … I got into painting in the atmosphere I wanted to be in.” (Harold Rosenberg, “Interview with Willem de Kooning,” ArtNews 71, No. 5, September 1972, p. 57). The sun drenched lushness of East Hampton pulsates through Untitled II with an immediacy that invokes the iconic landscapes of de Kooning's Impressionist forebears, and such masterpieces as Claude Monet’s The Artist's House from the Rose Garden, 1922-24 (Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris) in particular. Just as Monet found inspiration in his Giverny garden during the last decade of his life, de Kooning sought to convey the shimmering light and lush vegetation that surrounded him through paint in his final years.

    With Untitled II we see an artist revisiting longstanding themes and formal elements, but also making his first forays into a new, radically different, visual territory - spurred, in part, by de Kooning’s re-discovery of Henry Matisse. As de Kooning entered his later years, he found himself turning way from the model of Pablo Picasso more and more. In 1980 de Kooning stated, "Lately I’ve been thinking that it would be nice to be influenced by Matisse. 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” (Willem De Kooning, quoted by M. Stevens & A. Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2004, p. 589). Of the few paintings created in 1980, Untitled II is distinct for the way in which the glowing white passages float ethereally across the chromatic landscape in a manner that clearly belies de Kooning’s admiration for Matisse’s late cut-outs. A pinnacle from de Kooning’s late career, Untitled II speaks to the dawning of unprecedented creative burst and pictorial invention. Indeed, as Robert Storr famously put forward, "From 1980 on, de Kooning was, as he had anticipated, walking in his own landscape, and the paintings he made emanate from a mature innocence and are possessed of an unselfconscious grandeur—and grace. When, in his final pictures, the light flickers or a trace wavers, we regard such uncertainties or hesitations with amazement rather than dismay, for they are the most reliable signals we are ever likely to receive of a superior aesthetic intelligence exploring the furthest limits of consciousness itself. There is virtually nothing to compare these paintings to, and no disinterested standard of judgment. Unprecedented in their time, they are the pure evidence of existence and a hard-won affirmation, which only the most extraordinary of artists could have offered us, and only the most extraordinary artist did” (Robert Storr, “A Painter’s Testament: De Kooning in the Eighties”, MoMA Magazine, Winter/Spring 1997, n.p.).



Untitled II

signed "de Kooning" on the reverse
oil and newsprint on canvas
77 x 88 in. (195.6 x 223.5 cm.)
Executed in 1980.

$12,000,000 - 18,000,000 

Sold for $13,130,000

Contact Specialist
Kate Bryan
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+ 1 212 940 1267

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 18 May 2017