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  • "Miles Davis bends the notes. He doesn't play them, he bends them. I bend the paint." —Willem de Kooning 

    Lush and sensuous, Willem de Kooning's Untitled is a quintessential example of the benchmark paintings the artist created in the mid-1960s. Painted in 1964, it speaks of the defining moment in both de Kooning’s life and practice ushered in by his move from New York City to the pastoral environs of East Hampton just the year prior. The dramatic shift in scenery served as a catalyst for a wholly new body of work in which de Kooning pushed his iconic subject matter of the female figure into abstraction – fusing body and landscape into one with a distinctive new painterly approach. These are pictures distinguished by a baroque painterly hedonism, a luminous chromatic palette evocative of East Hampton's light and sea, and a palpable sense of joy that harkens back to Henri Matisse's early Fauvist work. Remaining in the same family collection for decades, Untitled perfectly encapsulates the turning point in de Kooning’s practice that gave rise to such masterpieces as Woman, Sag Harbor, 1964, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., and The Visit, 1966, Tate, London.

     

    De Kooning in East Hampton

     

    Just one of the artist’s many shifts between abstraction and figuration, works such as the present one encapsulate the complex artistic evolution that has come to define de Kooning's pioneering oeuvre. When de Kooning created works such as Untitled, he had recently turned 60 and was enjoying considerable acclaim as one of the leading proponents of the New York School; his series of painterly abstractions that had followed his breakthrough Women series from the early 1950s were well received, resulting in his lauded “abstract parkway landscape” series. Yet, continuously seeking new ways forward in his practice, he defied expectations by returning to the female figure upon his permanent move to Springs in Long Island’s East End in 1963, having previously spent many summers there visiting Leo Castelli.

     

    De Kooning standing outside of Leo Castelli's Hampton home, 1953. © Tony Vaccaro / Bridgeman Images

    Untitled emanates the sense of openness and joie-de-vivre that de Kooning found in the environs of East Hampton, marking a distinct shift in mood from his existentialist renderings of the female figure more than a decade earlier. As art historian Thomas Hess indeed observed:

    "…de Kooning's pictures of the 1960s are drained of the anguish and look of despair which had so profoundly marked his earlier work. In the new Woman, the mood is Joy." —Thomas Hess 

    Notably, the figures in these works are often barely discernible; de Kooning employs fleshy, pigment-laden hues and curved brushstrokes to hint at – rather than clearly define – the female form as it shifts in and out of focus. With a sly nod to the classical tradition of the nude in repose within a landscape, a theme artist such as Rubens and Titian popularized, de Kooning exploits the fertile ground between abstraction and figuration to create an arresting composition evocative of the light and colors he found in the bucolic landscape of Springs. 

     

    Blurring the lines between figure and ground, de Kooning ultimately allows the materiality of paint to take center stage. Untitled perfectly demonstrates the fluid painterly technique the artist achieved in this highly experimental period, marking the culmination of a shift in technical methods he had begun around 1960 and beautifully makes itself manifest in paintings such as The Visit, 1966. 

     

    Willem de Kooning, The Visit, 1966-1967. Tate Gallery, London. Photo Credit © Tate, London / Art Resource, NY, Artwork © 2020 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    The highly fluid, slippery appearance of de Kooning’s twisting and turning brushstrokes reflects his use of new binding media, one which enabled him to mix a slower-drying, more liquid paint. This was a crucial advance for his tendency of constantly re-working a canvas over prolonged periods of time — a complex process including tracing, superimposing and combining drawings and painting transfers to the surface of other works; of painting, scraping down and repainting. The increased fluidity of this paint manifests itself in de Kooning's dynamic brushwork: more complex and varied than ever before, it builds up richly textured panoplies saturated with pigment.

     

    Towards a new painterliness

     

    While de Kooning embraced the physical materiality of painting as early as the 1940s onwards, his paintings from the mid-1960s are truly distinguished by an unprecedented level of sensuality – a shift in style that was not uncontested at a time when the New York art world was in thrall of minimalism. 

     

    As Untitled makes clear, these paintings are revolutionary for the ways in which they re-position the female figure as subject matter. Beyond description, beyond metaphor, these are works that emphasize the phenomenology of both the human body and painting. With Untitled and its related works, de Kooning offers the viewer a truly sensory experience – echoing Susan Sontag’s sentiment that, “what is important now is to recover our sense. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more … Our task is to cut content back so that we can see the thing at all.”i 

     

    Untitled sprung out of a transitory period of intense experimentation, perfectly exemplifying how de Kooning deftly probed the line between figuration and abstraction in a wholly new visual style. Importantly, as Valerie Hellstein put forth, “…de Kooning’s canvases remind us that looking is physical, is felt: that we as physical beings are part of the depth of the world.”ii 

     

    i Susan Sontag, "Against Interpretation", in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, New York 1969, p. 24
    ii Valerie Hellstein, In Focus: Women Singing II 1966 by Willem de Kooning, Tate Research Publication, 2017, online

    • Provenance

      Private Collection
      B.C. Holland, Inc., Chicago
      Private Collection, St. Louis (acquired from the above)
      Thence by descent to the present owner

    • Artist Biography

      Willem de Kooning

      American • 1904 - 1997

      Willem de Kooning was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and 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 painters Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and of course his wife, Elaine de Kooning. 

      Known for having stated “flesh is the reason why oil painting was invented,” de Kooning’s work often evokes the human body--even as some of his contemporaries moved towards pure abstraction. Like the other Abstract Expressionists, de Kooning was a proponent of “Action Painting,” which emphasized the physical aspect of their work, eschewing the idea that painting was necessarily a careful, precise art form. By the 1960s, the artist was living and working out of his farmhouse on Long Island, and he managed to breathe new life into his work after decades in an urban environment. Though he was no longer a public figure at that time, 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. Following a prolonged battle with Alzheimer’s, the artist made his last work in 1991 and passed away in 1997.

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Property from a Distinguished Midwestern Collection

140

Untitled

signed "de Kooning" lower right; dedicated "Happy Birthday / dear Martin / Bill" on the reverse
oil on paper laid on Masonite
35 3/8 x 22 1/2 in (90 x 57 cm)
Painted in 1964.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
$500,000 - 700,000 

Sold for $630,000

Contact Specialist

John McCord
Head of Day Sale, Morning Session
New York
+1 212 940 1261

[email protected]

20th c. and Contemporary Art Day Sale - Morning Session

New York 8 December 2020