Please note that this work has been requested for inclusion in the exhibition De Kooning – Zao Wou-Ki: Abstract to be held at Dominique Lévy Gallery, New York in early 2017.
A riotous explosion of rich, translucent color and frenetic, enigmatic form, Untitled XXV is one of approximately 20 large “pastoral” paintings that “poured out” of de Kooning at the very the height of this exciting period of new-found creativity in 1977. David Sylvester called this year de Kooning’s annus mirabilis, not just because it proved to be such a prolific year for the now 73-year-old painter, but also because it was the paintings of this year that proved the most complex and intense expressions of the artist’s entire late style. Indeed, after 1977, de Kooning’s energy and interest dramatically began to wane. He was only to create four or five large-scale paintings in 1978 and, after only a few haltering examples made in 1979, de Kooning relapsed into drinking and the series ground to a halt.
Begun in 1975, de Kooning’s mid-1970s “pastorals” grew from the auspicious beginnings of works such as …Whose Name Was Writ in Water to become ever freer, more detailed and fluid. This tendency built throughout some magnificent works of 1976 until, in 1977, paintings such as Untitled V of 1977 (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo), XVIII (North Atlantic Light) of 1977 (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam), or as here in Untitled XXV, de Kooning’s command of the chaotic watery flux of these pictures attained a Pollock-like level of ability to let go, and to enter a state of intuitive painterly abandon, while simultaneously maintaining complete control over the resultant whole.
Eruptions of apparently automatic and impulsive painterly activity were made swiftly after what was often several hours of contemplation of the work from a wooden rocking chair. Paintings like Untitled XXV are not, however, as spontaneous and immediate as they might at first appear. All these paintings are, in fact, the product of a laborious process of preparation and structuring followed up by a deconstructive sequence of restructuring, building, destroying and rebuilding until a cohesive, all-over surface that teems with vitality and the appearance of immediacy is attained. “How much time there was concentrating and looking,” Emilie Kilgore recalled. “Sitting in that chair! Maybe having a cigarette. But still just looking with such intensity. And then getting up and walking over…still with his eye on the painting and then Kershewwww! Everything leading up to it was so long and then he got there and it was always pretty quick” (E. Kilgore, quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swan, De Kooning: An American Master, New York 2005, pp. 542-543).
De Kooning began these mid-1970s paintings by preparing an almost luminous flat ground of lead white. The radiance of the North Atlantic light was, after all, one of the defining influences upon these pictures. De Kooning would build these paintings methodically from a ground of radiant lead white that was sanded down before being painted again and then sanded once more, “until the surface became almost translucent” (W. de Kooning quoted in De Kooning: A Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, 2011, p. 430). Onto this almost glowing, white base the artist would draw in rough charcoal in accordance with numerous enlarged sketches on paper or vellum that he had made prior to beginning the painting. These were enlargements of even earlier drawings that de Kooning had often made unconsciously and without looking while doing other things such as watching television. Most of these drawings were loosely figurative in origin—rhythmic, linear plays of form and line around the centralized form of a woman. Pooling these drawings around him, de Kooning would also work on several canvases at the same time, and attempted to create a collation of energized, rhythmic, flowing lines on the canvas surface as a kind of natural foundation from which to begin painting. An infrared photograph shows the graphic foundation of …Whose Name Was Writ in Water seldom visible in the finished painting. These linear charcoal beginnings of the painting often grew to become an extremely convoluted and heavily worked mesh of rippling form.
From the radiant white spaces protruding between the lines of these drawings, further natural forms and spaces would suggest themselves, perhaps like the patterns of light and color on the surface of the water, which de Kooning so often watched. Onto these, de Kooning would begin to paint using long housepainter’s brushes that lessened the precision of his control and allowed for rough, splashy accidents reminiscent of some of the wet brushwork of Zen calligraphy. As de Kooning’s friend Thomas B. Hess wrote in 1978, after observing the artist at work on these paintings, de Kooning “mixes his colors in glass salad bowls, with safflower oil and water emulsified by a little kerosene, and beats them to a fluffy consistency. The colors are applied to stretched canvases with three-inch house-painter’s brushes—the kind you buy in any hardware store—and with long-handled liners that used to be manufactured for scenery and display artists and now are special-ordered from the factory. De Kooning is amused by this custom-tailored detail in his methodology. He is even more eloquent about the house-painter’s brushes; he likes them, he says, old, dirty, frayed, doddering, neatly ranged on his palette, the brushes remind you of Depression-days bread-lines. Poignant. Hapless. And, in the artist’s small muscular hand, supremely efficient” (T. Hess, “In De Kooning’s Studio” Vogue, New York, April 1978, pp. 236-239).
“The image,” Hess continued later in this article, describing de Kooning’s method, “starts in drawings... [and then his graphic]... procedures of combining and recombining images also take place within the acts of painting. Part way through a picture he may stop work, apply a sheet of tracing or newspaper to the wet surface, press gently down, and pull the sheet off, taking a reverse impression or monotype of the painting. De Kooning studies the monotype as he continues with the canvas; he may cut the print apart or keep it to preserve a stage of development that may be useful for the work in progress or a future work. Also the monotypes offer a surface of ghost brush marks that appeal to this artist who enjoys a no-hands, objective look, even while he practices the most intimate, personalized features. Drawings and monotypes accumulate. They hang from beams like hams in a smoke house. They pile across stables in drifts. The atmosphere of the studio begins to whirl as your eye dances from shape to shape, backward and forward, across the walls and into the room. The artist is apt to observe the chaos quietly from a hefty Adirondack rocking chair, checking a work in progress; or he will start to paint again with chopping motions; he remains the still centre of a whirling oeuvre. Recently, de Kooning has modified his procedures. He will bring a canvas to the point where it’s covered with paint, then scrape all the pigment off, leaving a stained slick surface; at which point he pours water over the painting ‘to get rid of the ridges’ - to make the shapes even smoother, hazier, more evocative. He studies the image for hints and clues to other configurations, just as Leonardo da Vinci studied the marks made by a set sponge thrown against a wall. Except that de Kooning has made his own sponge and his own wall” (Ibid., pp. 236-237).
What drove de Kooning in the creation of these works was the making of an unusual, surprising and always vital mark or image—one which, he once said, is “something I can never be sure of, and no one else can either” (W. de Kooning, “Interview with Harold Rosenberg” Art News, September 1972, p. 58). It was an ultimately indefinable quality that he sought. One impossible to define or, indeed even attain through any other means other than those that he practiced. As Joan Levy, a young painter and friend of de Kooning’s daughter, Lisa, who spent much time out at the Springs studio in the mid-1970s observed, de Kooning’s painterly practice was a delicate balancing act, or, as he liked to say, a ‘gamble.’ “One little shift of color or line,” Levy noted, “could change the form so that another image appeared. But then as soon as it starts to appear[,] you have to make a new choice about which avenue to take. That’s what Bill used to call ‘the anxiety of possibilities’” (J. Levy quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swan, op. cit., p. 558). Levy would ask de Kooning, “How the hell can you paint something if you’re trying not to paint it? Can you imagine being a kid trying to understand how to paint and here’s this guy unpainting himself. This used to stymie me. The thing was, it stymied him just as much. So in his presence I would feel this contagious anxiety” (Ibid.).
At the heart of this balancing act between unorthodox forms and forces, impulses and suggestions and the harnessing of accident and flux, was always the overriding sense of the figure. This was usually a central female figure—the Woman—whose ineffable presence appeared to be hovering, somewhere outside the picture, reflected loosely in its undulating, aqueous surface, often impossible to discern or to define, but there nonetheless. “Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented,” de Kooning famously said, and the presence of a naked female figure is never far from the nuanced eroticism of de Kooning’s lifelong relationship with paint. Indeed, talking about 1970s paintings like Untitled XXV, de Kooning said that he was always able to sustain this ever-present sense of the figure throughout the process of painting the picture precisely because of its volatility, because, it could, “change all the time. She could get almost upside down, or not be there, or come back again, she could be any size” (W. de Kooning quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swan, op. cit., p. 563).
Untitled XXV is one of a sequence of works created alongside each other in 1977. De Kooning’s numbering sequence for these works is largely arbitrary and not really reflective of any order in which his works were created. One of the more vibrant, vigorous and visceral of the great 1977 paintings, Untitled XXV is rich in scarlet, crimson and vermillion hues, as well as a radiant white that both underpins and overlays the painting’s frenetic and highly active surface. Nothing of the original underdrawing that gave rise to the work remains visible; the entire surface of the painting is a combination of fluid, thick and heavily applied brushwork. The exciting skin of the painting’s surface is a volatile mix of strokes and styles created with both the brush and by the pulling, smearing and layering technique of laying painted and paint-soaked paper, newspaper and vellum over the surface and then later sliding it off at different angles. As a result of this great variety of techniques applied to this work, a magnificent and surprising sense of depth and intricacy has been attained between the many layers of paint.
Combining together to form one, united, cohesive and thoroughly integrated skin of painterly play, this great variety of activity asserts its own sense of materiality. Everything is openly on show on the surface. Nothing is hidden or veiled so that every mark that constitutes the picture seems to have been made in the urgency of the present moment. “De Kooning’s paintings of the 70s are an annihilation of distance,” David Sylvester wrote of these works in this regard. “These paintings are crystallizations of the experience and amazement of having body and mind dissolve into an other who is all delight.” (D. Sylvester, “Flesh was the Reason” in Willem de Kooning Paintings, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., 1994, p. 30). De Kooning himself expressed the same sentiment when he told Emilie Kilgore that “I get the paint right on the surface. Nobody else can do that” (W. de Kooning, quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swan, op. cit., p. 562). By this he meant that in the magic of these wet, loose, all-over, mid-1970s paintings, he had managed to attain a similar sense of surface to that which he had once so admired in the work of Chaim Soutine, who, he once noted, “builds up a surface that looks like material, like a substance. There’s a kind of transfiguration, a certain fleshiness in his work. I remember when I first saw the Soutines in the Barnes Collection. In one room there were two long walls, one all Matisse and the other, all Soutine—the larger paintings. With such bright and vivid colors the Matisses had a light of their own, but the Soutines had a glow that came from within the paintings—it was another kind of light” (W. de Kooning, quoted in D. Waldman Willem de Kooning, New York, 1988, p. 136).
It is this same “kind of transfiguration” and luminosity that de Kooning attains in 1970s paintings such as Untitled XXV. His slipping, sliding method of molding together a multitude of marks with both brush and paper pulled across the paint has the effect of transforming the act of painting into the sole subject of picture. As such, and as de Kooning clearly intended, there is no beginning or end to such a work. No sense of completion or incompletion, only the joy, energy and beauty of the moment of making and of somehow everything falling in together being celebrated on the painting’s surface. De Kooning’s masterful “slipping glimpse” approach to his work is the unorthodox approach of an improviser plucking new forms out of the air. “Miles Davis bends the notes,” De Kooning once said about this aspect of his work. ”He doesn’t play them, he bends them. I bend the paint” (W. de Kooning, quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swan, op. cit., p. 562).