Virtuosic and enthralling in its floating dynamism, Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XVIII presents a deft handling of pictorial space and expressive content. Translucent ribbons of glazed blues and reds twist and climb in expansive, full-bodied gestures that for all their seeming restraint and clarity convey propulsion that expands beyond the framing edges. With bold strokes and graceful directional contrasts, thin strips of luxuriant primaries torque and turn in arcs and bends, curvatures that render Untitled XVIII an exquisite essay in free, variegated streaks of extraordinary refinement and sophistication. Moving away from premixed hues, here de Kooning makes use of primaries, gravitating towards the “naturalism of Mondrian, where red is red and blue is blue." (W. de Kooning, quoted by R. Storr, “At Last Night,” in J. Jenkins (ed.), Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings, The 1980s, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1995. p. 73). Streaks rendered with the brush and palette knife are in evidence as is the flick of a wrist, the pressure and relinquishing of weight as lines fold, congeal, dissolve, layer, and spread in delicate, finely-honed gestures that blend drawing, painting, and sculpting into precise equipoise. While the image remains distinct from its ground, there is a sense in which de Kooning melds the two, as opaqueness and translucency close and open trails of the artist’s hand over Untitled XVIII’s luxuriant surface.
Stylistically for de Kooning, the 1980s see a paring down of the material surface through sanding and scraping impasto until it achieved a smooth, flattened finished. Paint itself became transparent, lucid, allowing light to play across the surface. The image emerges as fluid, linear marks, speaking to de Kooning’s love of motility, of oil paint—its responsiveness and the alacrity with which it could be moved around the canvas. Art historian Richard Schiff has identified “fluidity” as the “physical principle” of de Kooning’s practice, “the material analogue of conceptual change and transition” (R. Schiff, “Water and Lipstick: De Kooning in Transition,” in Willem de Kooning: Paintings, Washington, New Haven, and London, 1994, p. 35). Untitled XVIII represents this underlying thematic of his practice and continues a long-term commitment to revisit shapes in a process of revision and renewal, as if visual and physical memory combined to “impel[…the artist] to bring a whole life’s work into each section of a new picture” (T. B. Hess, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1959, p. 15).
As if moving outward from the center of the canvas, the origins of de Kooning’s dancing, jumping, splayed ribbons can be detected in charcoal drawings, dating from the 1950s through the 1970s. As if recalling the gravitational field that draws a dancer—like the artist—to a center point, de Kooning’s contour drawings rely on the almost physical sense of centrifugal expansion, a trajectory originating from the center but looping and bounding outward in all directions. According to a reporter’s notes, de Kooning remarked, “Everything returns to the center, the figure floats from the center,” and it is in this sense that the loose, undulating rhythms in Untitled XVIII echo in their outward flow the individual lines of these early works. (W. de Kooning, quoted by R. Schiff, “With Eyes Closed: De Kooning’s Twist,” Master Drawings, Vol. 40, no. 1, “American Drawing in the Mid-Twentieth Century,” Spring 2002, p. 75). These ribbons float around what appears to be negative space, space that is now evacuated, having forced to its perimeters and beyond the tableau of twists, leaps, and bounds. Splayed and broadened, these ribbons recall de Kooning’s work in sculpture as well, for no matter the flattened, frontal presentation of the image, Untitled XVIII conveys a dimensional quality that seems to expand laterally and frontally, even at times turning back into a recessional plane. The reduction in palette to blue and red at play on a white surround is balanced by the wide-open field over which these seemingly enlarged lines run: “Color was pared down to a few hues, and the diminished number of strokes was countered by an enlargement of their scale… The immediacy of the initial gesture is retained” (M. Prather, “Catalogue,” in Willem de Kooning: Paintings, Washington, D.C., New Haven and London, 1994, p. 156).
Earlier in his career, de Kooning began his paintings by transferring an image already worked out onto the canvas, either by tacking a sheet of vellum on which a drawing had been made in charcoal and tracing that drawing onto the canvas or by holding a drawing or photograph up and sketching from it. Often he would draw from his most recent work, which lay to the right of the current project (G. Garrels, loc. cit., p. 22). After 1985, the consistent procedure, however, would be to draw these lines in charcoal directly onto the sanded canvas and then build up these lines with paint, covering over, outlining, flaring, or painting out the line according to his aesthetic sensibility at the moment. Blending, rubbing, scraping, and sanding continued throughout the process, even as curvatures erupted or melded into congruent shapes. As Thomas B. Hess wrote of de Kooning in 1967, “There are things an artist is stuck with, and there are choices open to him…. Perhaps it is the brain in the wrist – a highly developed, self-critical center of physical actions, which works faster than the brain in the head can predict – that takes over” (T. B. Hess, De Kooning: Recent Paintings, New York, 1967, p. 38).
Later in his life, de Kooning seemed to gravitate his aesthetic proclivities towards simplification and to what the artist termed the uncomplicatedness of Matisse. As art historian Robert Storr recalls, de Kooning had told his assistant Tom Ferrara that what he felt in front of a Matisse was that “floating quality” found in Dance (1909). In 1980, de Kooning stated, “[A]s I get older, it is such a nice thing to see Matisse. I always thought he was innocent of that fitting… When people say my later paintings are like Matisse, I say, ‘You don’t say,’ and I’m very flattered” (W. de Kooning, quoted in J. Wolfe, Willem de Kooning: Works from 1951-1981, East Hampton, N.Y., 1981, p. 16). Untitled XVIII evinces that floating quality as well as another quality the artist associated with the Renaissance painter Titian. Referring to the ninety-year-old master, de Kooning stated, “…he kept on painting Virgins in that luminous light, like he’d just heard about them… Those guys had everything in place, the Virgin and God and the technique, but they kept it up like they were still looking for something. It’s very mysterious” (W. de Kooning quoted in M. Kimmelman, “Life Is Short, Art Is Long,” New York Times Magazine, January 4, 1998).