Two decades after the peak of Abstract Expressionism, Willem de Kooning, one of the preeminent leaders of the movement, was still painting intensely fertile and active canvases. In Landscape, painted in 1972, de Kooning is able to paint and sculpt tendrils of cerulean and burgundy against a tapestry woven from the colors peach, cream and sky blue. A vivid patch of yellow peers out from the left edge of the canvas much like sunlight would dapple the ground when falling between twisted branches in the overhang of a tree’s leaves. Much like the artist’s signature Woman series of the early 1950s, Landscape maintains a careful balance between the optical and the tactile, resulting in an untethered abstract free-for-all and referential figuration.
In 1961, de Kooning continued to escape the frenzy of New York and the Abstract Expressionists’ home base, the Cedar Tavern on University Place, to explore the countryside near Springs on the Long Island peninsula. There, surrounded by the scrub landscape and with the call of the ocean, de Kooning began to take his surrounding environment as the subject of study. As the artist has stated, “When I moved into this house, everything seemed self-evident. The space, the light, the trees—I just accepted it without thinking about it much. Now I look around with new eyes. I think it’s all a kind of miracle” (W. de Kooning, quoted by M. Prather, Willem de Kooning: Paintings, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1994, p. 197).
By 1972, the artist had innovated across a range of mediums and materials, including sculptural works crafted in clay before being transformed into bronze. Ranging in scale from the tiny and hand-held to monumental works meant for outside display, de Kooning’s bronzes are the unlikely link between his early and late work. Life-sized figures in bronze, such as Clamdigger--inspired by the real-life laborers digging for clams along the beach near de Kooning’s home, are among these sculptures. De Kooning brought back the lessons he learned in clay and incorporated the medium’s tactility into his later paintings.
This innovation with different mediums led, in turn to a new kind of painting for de Kooning, who would challenge the texture and viscosity of his pigment by mixing in different agents like benzene and kerosene. As de Kooning’s friend Thomas B. Hess wrote, 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 result of such innovations was a paint that took on the characteristics of the clay he had been using to build his sculptures with. Embodying qualities of both stiffness and flexibility of clay, de Kooning would marry the newfound density and malleability of his materials with a range of colors found around his home in East Hampton. The result of such experimentation with materials were paintings of indelible presence.
Landscape belongs to a period of brilliant achievement in which we also see a movement away from the strict central compositional arrangement of earlier paintings. Visual interest darts around the picture plane, tracing shifting vectors that splay outward from the center to corners. There are traces of slightly recessive flesh tones and reds that pop into the field of vision, and whites—evident in the ground color and mixed with pigment—that offer islands of calming intervals. This roiling activation of the surface seems to create an active field, where light is captured and released in shallow space and made to illuminate a simmering rectangular plane. The artist expressed this in an interview with critic Harold Rosenberg from 1972, the year that Landscape was painted—“I wanted to get back to a feeling of light in painting… to get a feeling of that light… When I came here I made the color… of grey-green grass, the beach grass, and the ocean…. Indescribable tones, almost. I started working with them and insisted that they would give me the kind of light I wanted” (W. de Kooning, quoted by H. Rosenberg, “Interview with Willem de Kooning,” ARTnews 71, September 1972, p. 58).