Willem de Kooning - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, May 16, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Video

    Willem de Kooning, 'Untitled XVI', Lot 27

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening, 16 May 2019

  • Provenance

    Estate of the Artist
    Private Collection, New York
    Christie's Private Sales, New York
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Belgrade, Museum of Contemporary Art; Ljubljana, Museum of Modern Art; Bucharest, Romanian National Museum of Art; Warsaw, National Museum (illustrated, n.p.); Krakow, Branch Post; Helsinki National Museum of Art: Helsinki Kaupungin Taidekokoelmat (no. 8); Berlin, Amerika Haus (no. 7); Alicante, Caja de Ahorros; Madrid, Fundación Juan March (no. 10); Oslo, Norwegian National Gallery of Art (no. 10); Dordrechts Museum (no. 10), Willem de Kooning: Painting and Sculpture, October 1, 1977 - August 29, 1979 (with incorrect dimensions)
    Wassenaar, U.S. Embassy The Hague, February 1999 - July 2000 (on extended loan)
    New York, Cheim & Read, Soutine and Modern Art: The New Landscape, The New Still Life, June 22 - September 9, 2006, n.p. (illustrated)
    Riehen/Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Action Painting, January 27 - May 12, 2008, no. 82, p. 139 (illustrated)
    Kunsthal Rotterdam, Museum Minutes: Time and Energy for Art, September 29, 2012 - January 14, 2013
    The Hague, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, Transforming the Known, June 8 - September 29, 2013
    New York, Lévy Gorvy, Willem de Kooning | Zao Wou-Ki, January 18 - March 11, 2017, pp. 6, 60 (illustrated, p. 61; details illustrated, pp. 62-63)

  • Literature

    Katherine Brooks, “‘Museum Minutes’: Kunsthal Rotterdam Makes Art Admiring A Little More Stimulating”, Huffpost, October 12, 2012, online (installation view illustrated)
    Ryan Lee Wong, “Two Men and a Show”, The New York Times Style Magazine, November 15, 2016, online (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    “I get the paint right on the surface. Nobody else can do that.” –Willem de Kooning

    Masterful in its dynamic brushwork and energetic composition Untitled XVI, 1976, exemplifies Willem de Kooning’s work at the height of his prowess as a painter. Fully employing the luscious tactility of oil paint, he filled the entirety of his canvas with visceral brushstrokes that merge into a vibrant union of shapes and surfaces. De Kooning’s gestures range in size, texture, and direction, coalescing into an inspired balance between control and chaos. With a strong palette dominated by white, black and red, de Kooning kept his colors rich and varied, blending their tones with both subtlety and considerable visual impact. The painted passages of Untitled XVI evoke a churning seascape, immersing the viewer into a stunning abstraction which channels the gray light of the North Atlantic as it illuminates the roiling waves breaking onto the shore with tremendous velocity and ineffable rhythms, while also suggesting a figural presence.

    Held in only two private collections since its creation in 1976, Untitled XVI, has been exhibited widely around the world over the past four decades. It was first featured in Willem de Kooning: Painting and Sculpture, a major international traveling exhibition organized by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., and the United States International Communications Agency in 1977. Touring for two years throughout continental Europe, it traveled to museums in places such as Yugoslavia, Poland, Germany, Norway, and the Netherlands. More recently, the present work was included in the innovative exhibition Museum Moments: Time and Energy for Art, 2012, held at the Kunsthal Rotterdam. In 2017, Untitled XVI was exhibited in a museum-quality show celebrating the work of two great painters, de Kooning and his Chinese contemporary Zao Wou-Ki, to inaugurate Lévy Gorvy’s opening in New York.

    De Kooning had relocated to Springs on Long Island’s East End permanently in 1963, leaving behind the intensity of New York City. Designing a spacious new studio, the artist immersed himself in the bucolic, and decidedly rural, coastal landscape. Over the next two decades, he would engage with a pastoral mode very different from the urban themes and women featured in his previous paintings. It took some time living there for his environs to make a substantial impact on his work, however. "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 it's all a kind of miracle" (Willem de Kooning, quoted in Marla Prather, Willem de Kooning: Paintings, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1994, p. 197). By the mid-1970s, the artist fully brought the spirit of the area’s land, sea, and light into his paintings. Indeed, the unique light of the North Atlantic coast pervades Untitled XVI, its richly varied tones suggesting the unbridled movements of air and water along the coastline.

    Untitled XVI offers an extraordinary demonstration of de Kooning’s artistic boldness at a high point in his career, as he renewed his commitment to painting after devoting significant efforts to sculpture and lithography in the early 1970s. The resultant body of works that he produced from 1975 through 1977 are among his most renowned, both critically and in the marketplace – his auction records since 2006 have been works from this period. During this era, the artist, then in his seventh decade, brought his accumulated powers as a painter to bear on a series of abstract paintings that responded brilliantly to the pastoral Long Island landscape. Presenting the first of these paintings in the fall of 1975 with the gallerist Xavier Fourcade, followed by subsequent exhibitions in 1976 and 1977, this astounding series of work received wide critical praise. As David Sylvester summarized: “It came, with the artist in his mid-seventies, as the climax of a period in which the paintings – most of them landscapes of the body, some purely macrocosmic landscapes – with their massively congested, deeply luminous colour, their contrasts between flowing and broken forms, attain at their best a total painterliness in which marks and image coalesce completely and every inch of the canvas quivers with teeming energy. They belong with the paintings made at the same age by artists such as Monet and Renoir and Bonnard and, of course, Titian. The paint is freely, loosely, messily handled, sometimes with fingers rather than a brush or knife. Blurred forms loom up, often in extreme close-up, simultaneously adumbrated and dissolved by the paint” (David Sylvester, “When body, mind and paint dissolve”, The Independent, February 15, 1995, online).

    A master of abstraction, de Kooning evokes the ever-changing elements of land, sky, and sea without literal depiction or, indeed, without adhering to the conventions of landscape representation. According to Carter Ratcliff, de Kooning’s “whites have the shimmer of the sun careening off a gently rippled ocean. Though form is impacted here, this produces no harsh tensions, only the intensity of a scene so rich with shape and texture that it threatens to drown the eye” (Carter Ratcliff, “Willem de Kooning and the Question of Style”, in Willem de Kooning: The North Atlantic Light, 1960-1983, exh. cat., Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1983, p. 22). This is certainly the case with Untitled XVI, in which the artist’s powerful brushwork and nuanced colors creates a painterly analogue for the dynamics of natural forces in a way that brings to mind the seascapes of J.M.W. Turner. As he relayed in an interview with Harold Rosenberg: “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…When the light hits the ocean there is a kind of grey light on the water…Indescribable tones, almost. I started working with them and insisted that they would give me the kind of light I wanted…I reflected upon the reflections on the water, like the fishermen do” (Willem de Kooning, quoted in Harold Rosenberg, “Interview with Willem de Kooning", Artnews 71, no. 5, September 1972, pp. 56-57).

    While the composition of Untitled XVI suggests the dynamics of the land and sea, its varied red tones also coalesce into flesh-like pinks and contours that hint at human presence. “Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented”, de Kooning once proclaimed (Willem de Kooning, quoted in Thomas Hess, “The Renaissance and Order” in Willem de Kooning, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1968, p. 142). Without forming distinct anatomical references, Untitled XVI still manages to evoke bodily presence, part of the ongoing oscillation between abstraction and figuration that can be found throughout de Kooning’s oeuvre. The sensuality of his facture also suggests the influence of Chaim Soutine, whom he admired for his ability to infuse paint with the sense of flesh. In addition, de Kooning’s style emphasizes painting’s pliability as a medium, bringing to mind the gestural figuration of the sculptures that preceded this body of works.

    In his studio, de Kooning surrounded himself with these paintings, reacting to them as a group as he worked, and built on their innovations as they progressed. The artist began the mid-1970s abstractions by covering the canvases with lead white, then sanding them down to give those supports a tremendous luminosity. Blending his oil paint with water, safflower oil and kerosene, he varied its viscosity to achieve the consistency he desired, as seen in the lustrous painted surface in Untitled XVI. The resultant depth of colors and range of facture are unparalleled. The artist asserted: “I get the paint right on the surface. Nobody else can do that” (Willem de Kooning, quoted in Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2004, p. 562). The brushes and other tools de Kooning used to paint were no less unconventional. As John Russell reported after visiting the artist, “People often think that a great painter has to have great brushes, and it's true that some of them insist on hair so fine that it could put the silkworms out of business. But de Kooning uses (apart from knives and spatulas) everyday housepainters’ brushes that come in a ‘Pak-o-Four’ for $1.49. He also has devices of his own invention—pullings and tuggings and overlayings—for the perfecting of the licked look that gives so sumptuous a consistency to his recent paintings” (John Russell, “De Kooning: ‘I See the Canvas and I Begin’”, The New York Times, February 5, 1978, online). This sumptuousness is evident in the intense passages that emerge from the painting’s center and sides, where de Kooning’s robust brushstrokes twist and turn into spatially complex layers of intense color and emergent form.

    Throughout his career, de Kooning repeatedly proved himself to be a protean artist, continually reinventing himself while maintaining a continuity of aesthetic concerns. With his paintings from the era of Untitled XVI, he reinvigorated his practice, incorporating his unique approach to gestural abstraction with a new pastoral subject, creating a breathtaking topography of form within a single canvas. Drawing on a life-long commitment to process and form, he found new freedom in this late era, producing truly groundbreaking paintings. “De Kooning redefined the pastoral tradition in an original way”, summarized his biographers, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. “He found a means, at last, to unite the figure and the landscape into an ideal image that he could believe in.…He presented the figures in the landscape – rather than from without. He was not the outsider who surveys the ideal scene from afar. He had passed through the looking glass; he created, as he put it, ‘a feeling of being on the other side of nature’” (Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2004, p. 571).

Property of an Important Private Collector, Europe


Untitled XVI

signed "de Kooning" on the stretcher
oil on canvas
60 1/8 x 53 7/8 in. (152.7 x 136.8 cm.)
Painted in 1976.

$8,000,000 - 12,000,000 

Sold for $10,268,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 16 May | On View at 432 and 450 Park Avenue