Willem DE KOONING | Untitled IX

The Netherlands 1904 – United States of America 1997

Untitled IX 1983 oil on canvas
signed, verso, c.r. on stretcher, crayon?, "de Kooning", not dated
195.6 (h) x 223.5 (w) cm Purchased 1987 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
NGA 1987.729 © Willem de Kooning/ARS. Licensed by Viscopy

  • the artist;
  • from whom bought through Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London, by the Australian National Gallery, April 1987
  • Willem de Kooning at the National Gallery of Australia
    • 13 Mar 1999 – 30 May 1999
  • Abstract Expressionism: the National Gallery of Australia celebrates the centenaries of Jackson Pollock and Morris Louis
    • 14 Jul 2012 – 24 Feb 2013
  • Robert Rosenblum and Anthony d'Offay, Willem de Kooning, recent paintings 1983–1986, London: Anthony d’Offay Gallery 1986, no. 3, pp. 16–17, 36, illus. col.;
  • Larry Berryman, ‘Willem de Kooning: Anthony d’Offay Galleries’, Arts Review vol. 38, 19 December 1986, p. 693, illus. b&w;
  • Annual report 1986/87, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987, p. 24, illus., b&w;
  • Michael Lloyd and Michael Desmond, European and American paintings and sculptures 1870–1970 in the Australian National Gallery, Canberra: Australian National Gallery 1992, illus. col. p. 264;
  • Lucina Ward, ‘A dame, some clams and the broad: Willem de Kooning at the NGA’, artonview no. 17, Autumn 1999, pp. 26–28, illus. col.

The claustrophobia of earlier works stands in stark contrast to Untitled IX 1983.[1] All but 15 of the paintings that de Kooning made during the last decade of his creative life are consistent in size and, as such, may be regarded as an extended, or the ultimate, series.[2] From 1982 he adopted a white ground and emptied out all but the essentials of painting. Impasto, so important in previous years, was largely abandoned and his canvases treated so that the paint would glide over the surface. His colour palette was likewise reduced, often to primary colours; these, in turn, were emphasised by white.

De Kooning worked with other paintings around him and within his sight; aided by studio assistants, he would rotate the canvases, thus adjusting the orientation of a work.[3] As documented in photographs, many of the late paintings began with multiple campaigns of spidery, broadly figurative charcoal drawing, the intense linearity of which is reminiscent of his works on paper.[4] In scraping away layers of paint, ‘ghosts’ of earlier sessions were revealed. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, to find elements of the body emerging from Untitled IX; the 'eye' (at upper left) and the 'mouth' (at centre) disperse over the work.

Untitled IX incorporates notions of the unconscious or of floating, the reflective qualities of water, the ambiguous surface and fragmented space below. The ‘openness’ of the composition, its white background and sparseness of line suggest forms moving across a surface; indeed many of the same shapes appear in several of the other paintings of this period.[5] The springy arabesque, the ribbons of undulating red and blue, evoke hair-like tentacles or seaweed moving in the currents. For Tom Ferrara, working with the artist at this time, the scene is reminiscent of a beach, viewed from above, with a large orange beach towel, tide marks and fluctuating atmospheric conditions.[6] While De Kooning maintained the sensuousness of water throughout his late series, he continued to provide a broad scope for interpretation of his work.

Untitled IX brings to mind de Kooning’s delight at the ‘aesthetics’ of instability and a comment, recorded almost 35 years earlier: ‘When I’m falling, I’m doing alright; when I’m slipping away, I say, hey, this is very interesting! It’s when I’m standing upright that bothers me: I’m not doing so good; I’m stiff.’[7] The sinuous amorphism of this painting also recalls the artist’s black and white abstractions of the late 1940s. Its temporal and spatial ambiguity finds parallel in his works of some 15 years earlier, the paintings, drawings and lithographs which represent a land/sea divide. De Kooning’s use of white creates a limpid atmosphere akin to his environment at Springs and the light of the Atlantic coast.[8] More than this, Untitled IX encapsulates the sheer pleasure of painting, displaying the lexical economy of a mature artist in his later years.

Lucina Ward

[1] See, for example, Untitled (Figures in landscape) 1974, pastel, charcoal and pencil on paper, 74.3 x 79.2 cm, Purchased 1975, National Gallery of Australia 1975.552

[2] De Kooning seems to have conceived the works as tableaux and, on one occasion, combined three canvases to form a triptych. In this, their use of pattern, as well as the focus on water and its surface, the late paintings are often compared to Monet’s grandes décorations.

[3] For photographs of de Kooning in his studio, see Edvard Lieber, Willem de Kooning: Reflections in the studio, New York: H.N. Abrams 2000, pp. 53–113.

[4] See, for example, the states of Untitled XXXVI 1983 and No title 1983 in Willem deKooning: Paintings 1983–84, New York: Matthew Marks Gallery: Mitchell-Innes & Nash 1997, pp. 11–12 and pp. 20–21; and in Willem de Kooning: the late paintings, the 1980s, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 1995, pp. 54–56.

[5] A similar ‘mouth’ form, for example, appears in Untitled XIX 1983 (Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, San Francisco).

[6] The author in conversation with Tom Ferrara, the artist’s studio assistant in the period 1979–87, September 2012.

[7] Quoted by Richard Shiff, ‘Willem deKooning: Painting’s potential’ in Willem deKooning: Paintings 1983–84, 1997, p. 7

[8] De Kooning acknowledged the effect that working in the country had on his work: in 1972, 10 years after his move, he told Harold Rosenberg that he wanted to ‘to get in touch with nature, not painting scenes from nature, but to get a feeling of that light was very appealing to me, here particularly. I was always very much interested in water.’ Rosenberg ‘Interview with Willem de Kooning’ Art News, September 1972, p. 58 and quoted in Judith Wolfe, Willem deKooning: works from 1951–1981, East Hampton: Guild Hall of East Hampton 1981, p. 11

As well as two oil paintings on canvas and two oils on paper, the National Gallery of Australia holds the artist’s proof of the de Kooning – Harold Rosenberg collaboration Revenge (New York: Morris Gallery 1960), an early lithograph, Clam digger 1967. It also holds the set of artist’s proofs of the lithographs made by de Kooning at the Hollander Workshop, New York, 1970–71, one of his bronze multiples (5/100) dated 1972, and a pastel, charcoal and pencil drawing Untitled (Figures in landscape) 1974.