The afterlife of Willem de Kooning

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The afterlife of Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning’s paint-splattered shoes at his studio in East Hampton, N.Y., Aug. 4, 2022. The artist’s ghost lingers in his studio, as an auction of three of his paintings tests the vitality of his commercial reputation. George Etheredge/The New York Times.

by Arthur Lubow

EAST HAMPTON, NY.- Two rocking chairs still stand duty about 30 feet from the easel, as if waiting for Willem de Kooning, an abstract expressionist luminary, to sit down and scrutinize his wet painting in process. Although the artist died in 1997, his studio and living quarters here on Long Island have been so well preserved by the family that his presence hovers ghostlike in the building he designed.

In anticipation of a November auction of three works owned by de Kooning’s three granddaughters, who are his heirs, a team from Sotheby’s brought the paintings back to the site of their creation for a day in August, offering a rare outsider’s view of the artist’s home that threw a spotlight on the cash nexus between creation and commerce.

Depending on your perspective, the home where he lived from 1964 until his death can feel like an active workplace or a house museum. As in de Kooning’s time, paint-splattered Homasote fiberboard near the easel protects the speckled beige terrazzo that the artist installed after seeing photographs of the newspapers that Matisse used on his floor to dull the bounce of light — but the Homasote is now itself preserved by plastic wrap. The short commercial brushes de Kooning preferred, along with a cluster of longer, elegant artist brushes, are there at the ready, bristling from containers. There is even a bowl of paint, dried yet somehow eternally viscous.

In the early ’60s, when de Kooning moved to Springs, a relatively scruffy district of manicured East Hampton, his artistic success seemed secure. But security was a state that he feared. “Attic” (1949) and “Excavation” (1950), the masterpieces of his black-and-white series, dance with a contradictory combination of implosive fury and compositional harmony. A couple of years later, he alarmed his admirers (and his dealer) by plunging directly into figuration with the still-controversial paintings of women with bulging eyes and breasts and scarily toothy mouths. By the end of the ’50s, he had developed a purely abstract style of slashing brushstrokes. But for de Kooning, nothing was ever settled. He would bounce between figuration and abstraction through the ’60s.

De Kooning approached the task of designing a home much as he regarded the making of a new painting. “He famously called himself a ‘slipping glimpser’ and continually revised his paintings,” said Mark Stevens, co-author with Annalyn Swan of the authoritative biography, “de Kooning: An American Master.” “He hated the prospect of being contained or fixed. The paintings of the ’60s are full of light, water, movement, flesh and sand. Those are not like a building. How does he create a studio to reflect all that? He would examine its progress and then, if he found anything too contained and suppressing, he would revise and adjust.” Eschewing rectilinear edges, de Kooning commissioned custom windows with acute angles. “He wanted to feel free in his studio,” Stevens said. “Even the rocking chair moves.”

As snug and ordered as a ship, the structure is a reminder that de Kooning grew up in the port of Rotterdam, Netherlands, and came to America as a stowaway. Wooden seating along the studio window wall lifts up to reveal storage space. Two nautical-style open-tread oak stairways lead — one from the studio and the other from the living room and kitchen — to five upstairs bedrooms, which are tucked under the butterfly tresses that support the building like a forecastle deck where the sailors sleep.

With its butcher block dining table and butcher block kitchen shelves resting on cinder blocks, the home is solid and functional, never fancy. “To an immigrant like de Kooning, the idea of a central home is powerful, especially because he had been poor so long,” Stevens said. There are many examples of understated luxury, such as the rollout shelves and sturdy wooden hangers in de Kooning’s bedroom closet.

The residential and work areas interlock, so that the artist could slip into the studio at any hour but detach himself as easily. (Unlike the two guest bedrooms, his sleeping chamber doesn’t face the studio.) The separation of outdoors and indoors is similarly permeable. A screened summer house that he had built as a playroom for his only child, Lisa de Kooning, who died in 2012, is visible through the studio windows. He hated boundaries.

In service of fluidity, he commissioned a pulley system, still in place, that allowed his easel to be moved up and down and also turned. “When he finished a session of work, he often rotated it, so he would see it in a different way,” said John Elderfield, the chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, who organized the de Kooning retrospective there in 2011.

Elderfield suggested that “Montauk II” (1969), one of the three paintings coming to auction (with an estimate of $10 million to $15 million), had been rotated by de Kooning in its late stages by one turn to the left, thereby converting a scene of frolicking women into something more ambiguous. The “Montauk” paintings (five of them survive) oscillate between figuration and abstraction. This indeterminacy is a de Kooning hallmark. “He never stops the process of pictorial invention,” Elderfield said.

A tension exists between a painting when seen close up and in the longer view. De Kooning’s rocking chair was positioned to provide contemplative distance from the canvas. In “Untitled” (c. 1979), which is the largest and, with an estimate of $30 million to $40 million, the priciest of the three pictures being auctioned, the surface is frothy with air bubbles incorporated into the brushstrokes. For de Kooning, its color palette is highly unusual, dominated by deep blues and aquamarines. “At a distance, all the tactility disappears and the tonality is more apparent,” Elderfield observed. “The blue seems to float within the frame.”

As with the other two pictures, “Untitled” (c. 1979) marks a transition. After seeing a show of the great paintings he had made between 1975 and 1977, de Kooning shifted course. “He looked at them and said he felt he couldn’t do anything wrong, so he had to change things,” Elderfield said. “So there is much less linear patterning and he is using more flattened ribbons of color. It was trying to move onto something else.”

His heirs liken “Untitled” (c. 1979) to one of Monet’s late waterlily paintings. But it is recognizably a de Kooning — which, commercially speaking, is all to the good. As Elderfield remarked, “The marketplace tends to like things that someone recognizes when he comes into a room. Nobody would think this was a Monet.”

The third painting for sale, “The Hat Upstairs” (1987), which is estimated at $9 million to $12 million, marks a different sort of transition. It is one of the late paintings de Kooning completed before worsening dementia ended his career. (Although he stopped in 1991, the last paintings that Elderfield included in the retrospective were done in 1987.)

By this time, assistants were heavily involved in the artistic process. Much of the canvas is left white, and the paint is applied thinly. To some, these very late pictures represent a desiccation of de Kooning’s overflowing talent, but others disagree. “The Cat’s Meow,” a comparable painting from the same year, is in the collection of Jasper Johns.

The auction record for a de Kooning was set in 2018, when a painting from 1954-55 went for $68.9 million; but that price is dwarfed by entertainment magnate David Geffen’s private sale the previous year of “Interchange” (1955), also known as “Interchanged,” to hedge fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin for $300 million.

“There’s no singular de Kooning market,” said David Galperin, head of contemporary art for the Americas at Sotheby’s. “He appeals to both the connoisseur and the new buyer. There are certain collectors who go across the decades and some who have an affinity for a particular aspect of his practice. In the past several years, the market has really shifted for the ’70s and ’80s — there are so few paintings from the ’50s and ’60s that have come to market.”

If the commercial prospects of de Kooning’s paintings slide between decades and styles and attract admirers of various ages and expertise, the nonconformity is fitting. The ghost of the slippery master must be smiling.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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