Willem de Kooning - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Tuesday, November 15, 2022 | Phillips

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    The offering of Untitled, circa 1977, is a rediscovery of one of Willem de Kooning’s most significant paintings on paper from one of his most celebrated periods, the late 1970s. At 60 x 40 inches, it’s of a scale and quality that is on par with his greatest achievements painted directly on canvas. The work comes from the estate of Arlene Gura, a fine arts teacher, collector, and abstract expressionist painter herself, who worked as a docent at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

     

    In Untitled, the artist’s painterly adroitness is on full display: visceral strokes dominate the entirety of the composition, an improvisational yet harmonious flurry of physicality and lyricism. The painting was notably featured in one of the most important documentaries on de Kooning, by the well-known documentary filmmaker, Erwin Leiser. 
     

    Willem de Kooning carrying the present work in his studio, c. 1977.
    Willem de Kooning carrying the present work in his studio, c. 1977. Artwork: © 2022 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Leiser was born in Berlin and fled from Germany to Sweden at the age of 15 during Hitler’s rise to power.  He made over 50 films, and is best known for his documentary Mein Kampf, 1960, a history of Germany under Hitler, which was a box office hit and heralded as the most “effective summation of the Nazi era as recorded on film.”i Leiser also made a number of documentaries on artists, including the Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer and three documentaries on de Kooning, which remains the definitive filmed resource on the artist. Throughout the films, de Kooning speaks directly about his life, career and way of painting. 
     

    The present work (boxed in red at far left), in progress, in the artist’s studio c. 1977. Artwork: © 2022 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
    The present work (boxed in red at far left), in progress, in the artist’s studio c. 1977. Artwork: © 2022 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Untitled is featured throughout the film, Willem de Kooning and the Unexpected, at one point showing the artist moving it around in his studio. The work is shown tacked to a board and still in progress, revealing the artist’s working method for making his fully realized paintings on paper. Indeed, his meticulous editing process involved arranging his works in progress around him to examine and adjust their compositions in dialogue with each other. Though de Kooning’s paintings are often read as instinctual and spontaneous, the footage of his studio in the film, which captured Untitled before the artist finalized its palette, betrays the extent of his scrupulous reworking.
     
    The majority of de Kooning’s paintings on paper are not larger than 30 x 40 inches, but he sometimes used larger sheets, or combined two sheets, to create a larger composition. To make Untitled he stacked two sheets of paper horizontally, creating a 60 x 40 inch arena that approximates one of his most favored canvas sizes, 59 x 55 inches. After painting the sheets to a certain point, they were then mounted onto a canvas where he continued painting until it was finished. 
     

    The artist working in his studio, with the present work in the background, c. 1977.
    The artist working in his studio, with the present work in the background, c. 1977. Artwork: © 2022 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Executed circa 1977, Untitled belongs to a fruitful chapter at a high point in the artist’s career, indexed by his renewed commitment to painting after devoting significant efforts to sculpture and lithography in the first half of the decade. The result, according to esteemed curator and art historian Diane Waldman, was “an astonishing body of work” produced between 1975 and 1977, “which is prolific, versatile, extraordinarily high in quality and in many ways different from the canvases that preceded them.”ii The paintings created in the midst of de Kooning’s rapturous return to his most iconic medium are among his most renowned, both critically and in the marketplace. 
     
    Channeling the tremendous velocity and ineffable rhythms of roiling waves breaking onto the shore, the present work is evocative of the North Atlantic coast that informed the palette and atmosphere of de Kooning’s work in the mid-1970s. The artist had relocated to Springs on Long Island’s East End permanently in 1963, leaving behind the intensity of New York City for a personally-designed spacious studio on the bucolic shoreside. It was not until over a decade later, however, that his environment would conspicuously imprint itself on his artistic idiom. “When I moved into this house,” de Kooning recalled 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.”iii Moving away from the frenetic urban energy behind his paintings from the 1960s—the quintessentially New York City expression of abstraction—he began to embrace a more pastoral mode of representation. Following in the footsteps of Claude Monet at Giverny and Paul Cézanne with Mont Sainte-Victoire, de Kooning began to allow the spirit of natural world that surrounded him to pervade his work.
     

    Claude Monet, Waterlilies: Green Reflections (close-up), ca. 1914-1918. Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris Image: © RMN Grand-Palais / Art Resource, NY  
    Claude Monet, Waterlilies: Green Reflections (close-up), ca. 1914-1918. Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris Image: © RMN Grand-Palais / Art Resource, NY  

    In an interview with Harold Rosenberg, de Kooning elucidated the influence of his environs of the distinctive palette that he employed in Untitled. “When I came here I made the color of sand—a big pot of paint that was the color of sand,” referring to the flesh tone especially prevalent in the center right of the composition. “And the grey-green grass, the beach grass, and the ocean was all kind of steely grey most of the time. When the light hits the ocean there is kind of a 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. One was lighting up the grass. That became that kind of green,” which is scattered throughout the surface of the present work. “One was lighting up the water. That became that grey. Then I got a few more colors, because someone might be there, or a rowboat, or something happening. I did very well with that. I got into painting in the atmosphere I wanted to be in. It was like the reflection of light.”iv
    "There is something about being in touch with the sea that makes me feel good. That’s where most of my paintings come from."
    —Willem de Kooning
    While the composition of Untitled is redolent of the dynamics of the land and sea, its scarlet tones metamorphose into flesh-like pinks and contours that hint at human presence. Indeed, the female form, one of de Kooning’s most enduring motifs, is also alluded to, albeit in an abstracted way that integrates the figure with the surroundings. 
     
    The artist still had this subject at the forefront of his mind during the mid-to-late 1970s, manifestations of which range from ostensibly pure abstraction to the immediately recognizable woman portrayed in another example at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (Untitled, 1976).  The sensuality of his facture also suggests the influence of Chaim Soutine, whom he admired for his ability to infuse the pliability of oil paint with the voluptuous sense of flesh.
    "I’ve always been crazy about Soutine—all of his paintings. Maybe it’s the lushness of the paint… There’s a kind of transfiguration, a certain fleshiness, in his work."
    —Willem de Kooning
     

    Chaim Soutine, La femme accoudée (Gerda Groth), ca 1937. Private Collection. Image: HIIP / Art Resource, NY 
    Chaim Soutine, La femme accoudée (Gerda Groth), ca 1937. Private Collection. Image: HIIP / Art Resource, NY 

    Much like the Impressionists, De Kooning’s ability to expertly utilize the luminosity of his medium to convey sensory experience is indicative of the complexities of his technique. His desired texture called for a far more viscous consistency than what came out of a tube, leading him to blend his pigment with water, kerosene, and safflower oil or mayonnaise. Strictly working with only natural light, he forwent expensive materials in his pursuit of a greater tactility: house-painters’ brushes, a palette knife, and even his own fingers arrived at an entirely original surface. He would then press paper (or newspaper) onto the work before the paint had dried, lifting it to produce his signature stucco-like effect which is visible across areas of Untitled. In some areas of Untitled, you can see the ghosts of the newspaper ink transferred onto the painted surface, an effect that artist embraced for many decades. 
     
    Coalescing the two primary genres that typified his approach—landscape paintings and depictions of the female body—Untitled is emblematic of de Kooning’s revolutionary approach. His translation of these traditionally figural modes through the language of Abstract Expressionism foregrounded the potentiality of paint itself, marking his return to an alchemical medium able to give form to myriad momentary visual flashes and experiences. Finding freedom in this new chapter, he painted in Untitled all the possibilities of artistic representation in the post-war era. “Color may or may not suggest a figure, the grass or the sky; freed from depiction, liberated from shape and contour it has a…random quality…But like everything else he has touched, it is far from random, but is subject to his masterful control,” Waldman expounded. “In these recent works de Kooning reveals a new dimension in his oeuvre and reaffirms his central position in American art. Exuberant, free and innovatory, they are a great late flowering of his painting.”v

    i Vincent Canby, “The Screen: ‘Following the Fuhrer”, The New York Times, January 15, 1986, Section C, p. 17
    ii Diane Waldman, Willem de Kooning in East Hampton, exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1978, p. 26.
    iii Willem de Kooning, quoted in Marla Prather, Willem de Kooning: Paintings, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1994, p. 197.
    iv Willem de Kooning, quoted in Harold Rosenberg, “Interview with Willem de Kooning,” Art News, vol. 71, no. 5, September 1972, p. 56.
    v Diane Waldman, Willem de Kooning in East Hampton, exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1978, p. 27.

    • Provenance

      Private Dealer, New York City (acquired directly from the artist)
      Arlene R. Gura, Boston (acquired from the above in 1988)
      Thence by descent to the present owner

    • Literature

      Willem de Kooning in East Hampton, exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1978, p. 152 (the present work in progress in the artist's studio illustrated)
      Robert Hughes, "Landscapes and the Bodies of Women," Horizon, vol. 21, no. 2, February 1978, p. 19 (the present work in progress in the artist's studio illustrated)
      Erwin Leiser, Willem de Kooning and the Unexpected (Willem de Kooning und das Unerwartete), Zurich, 1979, film (the artist holding the present work in progress, 14:35-14:37; the present work in progress with the artist in the artist's studio, 12:56, 13:03, 14:37-14:50, 14:56-14:58, 42:30-42:31, 45:23-45:29)

    • 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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Property from the Estate of Arlene R. Gura

28

Untitled

signed “de Kooning” lower right
oil on paper, in 2 parts, laid on canvas
60 1/2 x 41 1/4 in. (153.7 x 104.8 cm)
Painted circa 1977.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
$4,000,000 - 6,000,000 

Sold for $4,870,000

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 15 November 2022