© 2021 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Williem de Kooning, Untitled XII (1981)
“That’s what fascinates me,” Willem de Kooning said to art critic and former University of Chicago professor Harold Rosenberg in a 1972 interview, “to make something I can never be sure of, and no one else can either. I will never know and no one else will ever know.” The primary-colored strokes that blend and flow across the surface of Untitled XII are ambiguous in form. However, compared to many of de Kooning’s other paintings from the early 1980s, they are quite pronounced. The surprisingly thin coating of paint holds layers of lines and colors that create a sense of movement across the canvas.
Having reached international recognition in the 1950s, de Kooning’s practice underwent extraordinary changes in the 1980s. From 1980 to 1983, de Kooning began to employ formal changes that would come to characterize his late style. He began to change his paint formula, adopting a thinner blend—as opposed to the viscous paints of his earlier work––that allowed him to experiment with greater fluidity in his lines. In another change during this time, and especially during 1981, de Kooning sanded down paintings from the 1970s that he had rejected, he would then douse them in turpentine to create a smooth surface that retained the ghostlike impressions of previous compositions. Likely used on Untitled XII, this technique leaves whispers of colors beneath the ribbon-like forms to give the canvas a wash of dreamy color. Untitled XII marks a nascent moment in de Kooning’s late style where he experimented with calligraphic lines, ambiguous forms, and broad washes of color. The painting provokes a consideration of aging through its layered construction and the changes in de Kooning’s process. Drawing on impressions of the past through recycled canvases and projected images, works like Untitled XII carry strong connotations of memory, a notion complicated by de Kooning’s dementia.
Untitled XII (1981) is one of fifteen paintings that de Kooning completed that year. However, from 1983 to 1986, the artist astonishingly produced, on average, a painting a week, ultimately producing more than 300 abstract paintings that were radically different from his previous work. The dramatic change in output has much to do with the physical constraints that de Kooning faced and overcame in his 70s and 80s. Accustomed to turning and adjusting the large canvases with which he worked, de Kooning now suffered back problems and was no longer able to rotate these canvases with ease. His lifelong struggle with mental health and subsequent alcoholism also reached a critical point in the late 1970s; therefore, the early 1980s were shaped by de Kooning’s newfound sobriety and recovery from alcoholism. The severity of these health concerns might be related to the slowing of his painterly activity that reached into 1983. However, changes in his practice during these slow years likely contributed to the outpouring of work of the latter part of the decade.
For an artist notoriously reluctant to name any work as “finished,” these late paintings are sometimes seen as de Kooning’s attempts at correction or revision. Physically erasing works of the 1970s by sanding them down to create the ambiguous traces in the background of several early paintings from the 1980s forms the literal foundation for the nascent period of de Kooning’s late style. In Untitled XII, red, yellow, and blue are the dominant colors, but sometimes blend into shades of green and purple. The tight, swirling lines in a myriad of colors that characterized earlier compositions relax into broader strokes in primary hues, a trend seen in Untitled XII and refined later in the decade.
De Kooning’s studio assistants came to play a critical role in the increased speed of artistic productivity, but the assistants maintain that they had little influence on de Kooning’s formal choices. Tom Ferrara and Robert Chapman were both hired by Elaine de Kooning, Willem de Kooning’s wife, and a woman who played an instrumental role in de Kooning’s return to health, in motivating the artist’s interest in recovery and in coordinating medical efforts to aide him. Ferrara and Chapman devised a number of solutions to support de Kooning’s practice. They began reinforcing the canvases he worked on with a foam-core backing and created a motorized, foot-pedal controlled apparatus that de Kooning could use to turn the canvases more easily, allowing the artist to continue his practice of turning and adjusting canvases as wished. (De Kooning often left the designation of the “top” of the painting to the very end.)
Additionally, de Kooning, who had almost always used reference materials whether in small sketches or through large tracings he would transfer to the canvas, adopted the use of a projector in the 1980s. With a waning interest in drawing, the projector allowed de Kooning to maintain his practice of using previous works as a starting point for new canvases without any intermediary stages before painting. At the time of Untitled XII, de Kooning had essentially stopped drawing altogether, making it very likely that a projection of a previous work influenced the design of this painting. Using technology simplified and streamlined the artist’s process. At the beginning of the decade, de Kooning worked very slowly, but managed all of these mechanical elements himself. As the years went on, he began to entrust more tasks to his assistants, which enabled the staggering pace at which later he worked. Untitled XII sits on the precipice of this shift in de Kooning’s artistic production; the artist himself likely did most of the preparatory labor, but was already assisted by Chapman, Ferrara, and their mechanical inventions.
While the nature of this collaboration enabled de Kooning’s incredible output, but it has also been a point of great concern among scholars and collectors who question the extent to which these assistants and devices may detract from the value of late de Kooning paintings. De Kooning’s dementia has also raised questions for some scholars who wonder how cognitive changes impact artistic identity. In 1995, as part of the preparation for the then-forthcoming show on de Kooning’s late works put on by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Walker Art museum, a group of art and museum professionals gathered to discuss and review the merits of these works from the last decade of de Kooning’s life. This group included several museum curators, directors, professors, as well as the artist Jasper Johns. While the group reached no consensus, the nature of this debate highlights the significance of these questions regarding authorship, creativity, and evaluation. The hundreds of works that de Kooning produced using these methods comprise a significant part of his oeuvre and reflect a great deal of artistic innovation. As the loose forms, open spaces, and smooth lines of Untitled XII and other late de Koonings may suggest a new degree of freedom and fluidity, the context of the creation of this painting raises further questions about accessibility and creative freedom. Untitled XII, with its physical foundation in impressions from the 1970s and ambiguous forms inspired by other projected designs, suggests a visual experience of memory and age. To address this painting and other late de Koonings with the same level of formal curiosity awarded to his earlier works encourages an expanded perspective on authorship and creative autonomy.
Willem de Kooning was no stranger to change. Over his nearly 80-year career, the most consistent aspect of his oeuvre is his perpetual experimentation. He began as an apprentice in a design firm at the age of 12 before beginning at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques in the Netherlands. In 1926, de Kooning moved to the United States where he first worked as a house painter, an experience—and techniques of which—he drew from throughout his career. At the same time, the influence of the classical masters he studied at the Rotterdam Academy were never far from his mind. In the 1960s, de Kooning found himself a leader in the Abstract Expressionist movement, a term applied to a shift in American painting that developed in New York City after World War II, at the time when the art world seemed to reject a classical background. However, unlike his peers’ commitment to emotional and physical expression, De Kooning danced between the figural and abstract as he developed the unique style that brought him international fame.
Throughout his life, de Kooning suffered from anxiety and panic attacks. He was prescribed brandy in the morning as a way to ease his nerves and, surrounded by the social scene of New York artists, soon slid into dangerous alcoholism. In the late 1970s, his then-estranged wife Elaine de Kooning intervened, helping the artist find proper medical attention. However, as he became sober, de Kooning’s struggles with his mental health returned. Consequently, the late 1970s and early 1980s were incredibly challenging for the artist.
Yet, de Kooning returned to work doing exactly what he always had before: change. In 1980, he resumed painting, slowly at first but later producing an astonishing painting a week, on average, for four years, from 1983 to 1986. He maintained several long-standing practices, such as surrounding himself with previous works and drawing on reference images as he worked, but his work in this decade adopted a new openness and fluidity. Despite criticisms and questions stemming from de Kooning’s Alzheimer’s as well as the involvement of various assistants, the more than 300 paintings created during the 1980s are a testament to his legacy of innovation, experimentation, and creativity. However, the physical challenges of age and Alzheimer’s took their toll. De Kooning completed his final painting in 1991 and passed away in 1997 at the age of 92.