“de Kooning’s recent canvases now enter the public domain of late-style miracles in the pantheon of Western painting”—Robert Rosenblum, 1986.
(R. Rosenblum, as quoted in J. Zilczer, A Way of Living: The Art of Willem de Kooning, London, 2014, p. 242)
Distinguished by its rolling ribbons of color traversing a large expanse of extensively worked canvas, Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XIX is an early example of the triumphal group of paintings that the artist completed during the final years of his life. Rivers of warm reds and subtle pinks coalesce with tributaries of royal blue and aquamarine, as they meander across the white expanse built up by numerous layers of white pigment laid down in a delicately opaque veil. With these large-scale paintings, de Kooning was building on a lifetime of painting, and highlights the fluidity of his gesture—marks that were as fresh and ground-breaking as they’d always been. Twisting and turning, these lines traverse across the canvas suggesting figures and landscapes, yet—just as they begin to coalesce in our imagination—they pull back from full-blown figurative representation. Begun in 1981, these paintings would cap a lifetime of prolific creation, which began with his explosive series of Woman paintings from the early 1950s and moved through to his triumphal figures in the landscapes of the 1970s. Lauded by critics from the beginning, in 1982 the Museum of Modern Art and Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden acquired two sister paintings of the present work for their permanent collections.
The quality of de Kooning’s line permeates the entire surface of Untitled XIX; as it makes its way over the surface, it cuts a dignified path through the whiteness. The line defines motion, not only in the way it meanders across the surface, but also as it changes color—chameleon-like—within the sweep of his brush. Bold black swathes of pigment lighten and darken in intensity as they tumble and descend downwards, at the same time reds morph from hot, intense flames into delicate and refined pinks. This is the result of de Kooning’s meticulous technique whereby he lays down and then removes repeated layers of pigment resulting in a shimmering, almost pearlescent, appearance. The noted art historian and curator Robert Rosenblum equated this “ethereal simplicity” to that seen in the work of Titian, Rembrandt, or Turner, “…de Kooning’s late canvases now enter the public domain of late-style miracles in the pantheon of Western painting” he noted. (as quoted in J. Zilczer, A Way of Living: The Art of Willem de Kooning, London, 2014, p. 242)
De Kooning’s paintings from the 1980s, evolved his painting technique away from using the bowls of vivid pigment that were dotted around his studio, to squeezing from a tube directly onto his palette. After mixing it with varnish oil and rectified turpentine, he would then pick up a blob of paint with his brush and apply it directly to the canvas, wiping off any excess with a spackling knife, leaving behind scraped patches and ghostly residues on the white ground. “If the paint once lay heavy on the canvas,” write de Kooning’s biographers Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, “now the white background shone through and the flicking strokes—made with a liner brush whipped around with the wrist—danced across the surface.” (de Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2004, p. 589)
The juxtaposition of the large, muscular passages of white pigment next to intricate traces of color gives the surface a sense of painterly tension. The combination of these two, seemingly contradictory themes, activates the surface, infusing it with a sense of anticipation, as critic Lynne Cooke identified. “…Most remarkable is his unprecedented combination of monumentality wedded to an insistent intimacy,” she wrote. “The resulting radiant freshness is far removed from the introspection and/or desperation which is often a feature of the late work of great artists. That famed anxiety which has proven a touchstone of, indeed almost driving force behind, so much of de Kooning’s art has, at least momentarily, been overlaid with something approaching lyricism.” (as quoted in A Way of Living: The Art of Willem de Kooning, p. 242)
Reviewing the first exhibition of these new paintings at Xavier Fourcade’s gallery, John Russell wrote in The New York Times, “…the new paintings are not quite like anything that he has done in the last ten years or more…” he wrote. “In the new paintings there are…many points of repose. White or near white areas speak for equilibrium…A firm architecture stands still and stable…In place of…ostentatious energy, there is a new sparseness of statement.” (as quoted in A Way of Living: The Art of Willem de Kooning, p. 242)
These canvases, painted as de Kooning neared his eighth decade, evoke the rich color and flowing forms of Henri Matisse’s revolutionary Cut-Outs, completed by the French artist when he was at a similar age. Although aesthetically very different, the link with Matisse can be seen in the spirit of the works, in the free-flowing forms and use of space. Speaking in 1980, de Kooning commented, “Lately I’ve been thinking, that it would be nice to be influenced by Matisse. I mean he’s so lighthearted. I have a book about how old he was and how he cut out colored patterns and he made it so joyous. I would like to do that—not like him, but joyous, more or less.” (as quoted in de Kooning: An American Master, p. 589)
Asked what he revered about the Frenchman’s paintings, de Kooning declared that it was the “floating” quality and their ethereal nature that he admired. It is clear that, along with Matisse, Picasso and other great masters, that despite his advancing years, his yearning for painterly accomplishment remained undimmed. The New Yorker’s art critic Peter Schjeldahl perhaps summed it up best when reviewing the very first exhibition of this late suite of paintings when he said, “Ageing has touched his art with, if anything even greater audacity and more resonant defiance, giving new edge to a mastery of painting’s resources that remains a wonder of the world.” (as quoted in A Way of Living: The Art of Willem de Kooning, p. 242)