Lyrical blue and red ribbons of ethereal beauty glide across an open tonally white canvas, coalescing in an undulating field of yellow held by black-blue contours, a wisp of yellow-into-blue grazing the lower right framing edge. Indeed, the edges in this magnificent example of Willem de Kooning’s late style are sites of dissolving color, as if the artist’s brushwork momentarily escaped the swirling atmospheric cascade of gliding striations. Painting in the last decade of his life, Willem de Kooning affirms his mastery of the light and air that is his patrimony—which is to say, Dutch landscape painting of the seventeenth century—with its beautifully balanced compositions and naturalistic effects of blue, white clouds, and glistening water surfaces and reflections. Among the innovations of de Kooning’s style from 1983 are the abstracted forms suggesting an affinity to landscape, a “nonmimetic reference” to nature – “to passing clouds, or to ripples or reflections on water…” (J. Elderfield, “White Paintings,” de Kooning Retrospective, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011, p. 463). Light radiates from Untitled X in a work considered among de Kooning’s masterful essays from a new phase of production begun in 1983 where vast fields of variegated whites, tinted by blue underpainting or the blur of adjacent hues, are laced with thin chromatic bands twisting gracefully into nearly figurative formations. The suggestion of the side view of nude female torso, windswept dark hair describing an upward sweep, catalyzes the mobile contours as they careen across the canvas, folding, weaving, and coursing with a fluidity and grace unmatched by any artist of the twentieth century.
In full command of the history of painting in this century, de Kooning’s links to Synthetic Cubism resonate over decades, as it had in his work from the 1940s and 1950s, which, as with canvases created by artists like Arshile Gorky, Cubist planar stacking was pried apart into open fields of light and contour drawing. For de Kooning, above all else, is a consummate draughtsman, such that what becomes distilled in his late work are contour lines, which like interstices in a swirling pool of pigment, create mobile designs in prismatic coloration. Here, the primary hues that are a mark of his late palette are subtly disembodied and submerged in whiter tonalities. Such imagery is flattened and tamed, removed in style and time from the thickened, roiling muscularity of earlier imagery. His surface is smooth, and the evidence of his hand is now embedded in the rhythmic fluctuations of thinness and thickness, of density and transparency amid the migrant waves of graphic patterns. Moving from visceral kinetic expressions of tactility in earlier decades to a significant work such as Untitled X suggests de Kooning’s ambition to create a purely optical experience. Our perceptions of line seem to fluctuate between surface design and nearly three-dimensional figuration and back again, while blue, then red, then yellow hues project forward then recede into seemingly deep pictorial space.
Untitled X is a canvas of a size that allowed de Kooning to flip the painting on an easel especially constructed for such movement, and thus to be able to work on it from all angles. According to his assistant, Tom Ferrara, de Kooning would begin all his works in the horizontal position, but then turn them at will. One can see that the orientation of Untitled X is fluid – the buckling and spiraling ribbons ricocheting off the edges at dizzying angles. The art historian John Elderfield describes these multidirectional foci as “multiple centers of interest, and therefore a continual distraction, of vision being shuttled about the surface, so that it may rest anywhere but can settle nowhere” (J. Elderfield, “Space to Paint,” de Kooning: a Retrospective, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011, p. 25). The tool that de Kooning employed to describe the bundles of striated colors was his favorite, the five-inch-wide joint knife (taper’s knife) an instrument that aided him in his delineation of surface grammar. With this tool, de Kooning scraped away and paired down his surface in order to distill the colored bands, to even out the planar support, and to embed the graphic pattern in a fluid field of white. The affinity with Cézanne’s water color technique – the open fields, the interlaced ribbons animated in lyrically unfurling arabesques – is clear in the way in which de Kooning’s wet-on-wet technique brings to mind Cézanne’s schematic abstractions of nature. In Untitled X , de Kooning’s pared down swirling strokes and hints of figuration filled in with yellow also mimic in contour and coloration Matisse’s Nasturtiums with the Painting “Dance”, 1912, in which the rhythmic linear handling of arms grasping arms as ebullient dancers encircle a yellow stool on which is perched a bulbous-shaped pot of flowering nasturtiums. Finally, the Sumi-e brush painting to which de Kooning had been exposed a decade earlier when Xavier Fourcade, his dealer, accompanied him on a trip to Japan, can also be seen as influencing the present work, as it did de Kooning’s lithographs during the 1970s, as if ink brushed lines and washes disposed over broad empty fields of white in this ancient Japanese tradition were transcribed by chromatic hues.
A lyrical essay in color, light, and movement, the roving bands of coloration that wind through resonant voids in Untitled X, speak to a painter at the moment of what Klaus Kertess poetically termed the “last beginning.” Four decades earlier de Kooning seemed to call up this very moment: “I get freer… I have this sort of feeling that I am all there now. It’s not even thinking in terms of one’s limitations, because they come naturally. I think whatever you have you can do wonders with it, if you accept it” (W. de Kooning, “What Abstract Art Means to Me,” 1951).
Oil on canvas
PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED NEW YORK COLLECTION
Signed 'de Kooning' (on the stretcher)
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning , 1980s, Paintings, United States of America, Post War
Boston, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University, Jasper Johns, Richard Serra, and Willem de Kooning: Works Loaned by the Artists in Honor of Neil and Angelica Rudenstine, January-August 1992.
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
77 x 88 in. (195.6 x 223.5 cm.)
Estate of Willem de Kooning, New York
Matthew Marks Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
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