In 1948, Clement Greenberg declared Willem de Kooning “among the four or five most important painters in the country… an outright ‘abstract’ painter.” (C. Greenberg, quoted in J. O’Brian (ed.), Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essay and Criticism, vol. 2, Arrogant Purpose: 1945-1949, Chicago and London, 1985, p. 228). Perhaps the foremost artist in his radical use of pure line and color, to the influential critic these forms seemed to be wholly without reference to any external image. The loose curves, the intersecting lines, the floating geometries presaged the greatness of abstract painting in America and while subsequent examination of these early canvases revealed figuration related to the body, Greenberg was not wrong. For the dominant expressive force, the qualities of abstracted, schematic, and reduced forms became, for de Kooning, the underyling thematic that persists throughout his painting career – and which are fully on display in the lyrical Untitled XVIII. An interlacing of gesture and chroma in waves of magisterial grace, Untitled XVIII carries forward in time the undulating movement of these earlier masterpieces. It is as if the eye is arrested not by the active surface or angled contour, but rather by the elegant sweep of a smooth pictorial plane that folds form and color into a single, unified expressive gesture.
The reduction to three colors—orange, blue, and white—also looks back to the reduced color spectrum of de Kooning’s early work. Insisting on such concentration of palette heightens the sensibility of formal concerns with which de Kooning was preoccupied during this period. Untitled XVIII belongs to a series of canvases featuring ribbon-like arabesques against a white ground that the artist began in 1981. The impulse toward open forms and thin paint application on view in Untitled XVIII demonstrations an affinity with Arshile Gorky’s biomorphism. Despite Gorky’s surrealist orientation what de Kooning admired and what can be seen in relation to Gorky’s forms such as in Soft Night, 1947, are its organic interlocking forms, its “wriggling biomorphic line,” and the non-illusionism in shallow space—a further impetus for de Kooning’s stylistic evolution begun in the 1980s. In Untitled XVIII, we see a realization of de Kooning’s admiration for the older artist, which he summed up in an oft-quoted statement: “In a way I have [Gorky] on my mind all the time” (W. de Kooning, quoted in A. Berman, “Willem de Kooning: ‘I am Only Halfway Through,’” Artnews 81 (February, 1982): 71). By 1982, the new trend in de Kooning’s painting was apparent. Richard Schiff has described it as not only reductive in terms of form and color, but spare in terms of paint application. “It was as though in the 1980s de Kooning was putting point down largely to take it away. He was interested in the residue the medium could provide and devised various subtractive methods to strip away all that was extraneous” (R. Schiff, “Water and Lipstick: De Kooning in Transition, 1975-1986,” in Willem de Kooning Paintings, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., New Haven and London 1994, p. 199).
Part of this “stripping away” can be see not only in the refined facture, but also in the restriction of the palette to orange, blue, and white, a practice begun during this period and carried out in beautifully rendered tonal atmospheres contrasted with denser zones of pure color. Color is activated particularly in the softened orange-infused white at the bottom right, which melds into the cobalt blue band, itself a contour for the lighter orange area that it forms—or alternatively, which forms it. Among the mysteries of de Kooning’s painterly mastery is such play between color and form—here in Untitled XVIII, the counterpoint between filaments, zones of color, and their surrounds. It is as if by reducing the palette, de Kooning could focus more closely on the compositional issues—the way in which sinewy ribbons weave arabesques in and out to create adjacent events between contour and color field, the linear markings creating swelling volumes floating in open areas of chroma. How such decisions were made was both experiential and intuitive, for de Kooning was known to reorient his paintings as they evolved. Making his decision not at the final stroke of the brush, but rather when he settled upon just how the painting would be hung, a composition would evolve as sight lines shifted (W. de Kooning, in T. B. Hess, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1959, p. 14). There is also a sense in which the white of Untitled XVIII functions as a backdrop to foregrounded linear and chromatic events: the flux de Kooning sets up between background and foreground, between image and surround is among the most exciting of his entire oeuvre.
De Kooning’s identification with certain gesture found in the works of Henri Matisse is demonstrated in a comparison between Matisse’s Blue Nude, 1956, and the sensuous curve of the large central arabesque in Untitled XVIII. This curve is a detail, but a profound one. Where Matisse gently creates spatial ambiguity by embedding the model’s shoulder in a curvilinear arc from which the lower portion of the arm emerges, in Untitled XVIII, de Kooning uses the arc to establish the dominant gesture, which he then carries throughout the present work in shifts and turns, in echoes of the lilting rhythmic pulse that characterizes this canvas. The contiguous angled dark hair of Matisse’s model seems almost to foreshadow de Kooning’s later “fitting in,” the way disparate forms are hooked into one another, the way they lie within or alongside other forms to create an interlocking compositional whole.
A synthesis of restatement and invention, of compositional control and spontaneity; a mixture of painterly gesture and draughtsmanship; of shallow spaces and volumetric areas; these are the elements that render Untitled XVIII a breathtaking canvas. With clarity and expressive force de Kooning’s utter mastery of his art, an art that clearly in his late works moves abstraction just beyond what he considered “the so-called real world” remained undiminished (W. de Kooning, quoted in C. B. Pepper, “The Indomitable de Kooning,” New York Times Magazine, November 20, 1983, p. 47). Untitled XVIII, in its weaving of primary colors, its spare shapes, and its utter reduction of the artist’s formal vocabulary nonetheless reveals the essence of de Kooning’s expressive gestural power. De Kooning’s commentary on Monet and Cézanne at the close of their careers can also be read as a wonderfully apt description of his own in the 1980s: “There is a time when you just take a walk...you walk in your own landscape.... It has an innocence that is kind of a grand feeling.... Somehow I have the feeling that old man Monet might have felt like that, just simple in front of things, or old man Cézanne too.... I really understand them now” (W. de Kooning cited in R. Storr, “A Painter’s Testament: De Kooning in the Eighties, online, http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/1997/dekooning/essay.html).
Oil on canvas
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning , 20th Century, Paintings, United States of America, Post War
IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART
80 x 70 in. (203.2 x 177.8 cm.)
Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London
Private collection, Australia
Dominique Lévy Fine Art, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner