“Later, as I get older, it is such a nice thing to see a nice Matisse…When people say my later paintings are like Matisse, I say, ‘You don’t say,’ and I’m very flattered."
-Willem de Kooning, quoted in R. Storr, “At Last Light”, Willem de Kooning,
the Late Paintings, the 1980s, New York, 1995, p. 71
A giant of Post War painting and a founder of Abstract Expressionism, Willem de Kooning had the inimitable ability to continually develop and refine his style over the course of his 60 year career. Unlike many of his contemporaries, his final style was lyrical and sinuous, bright and primary, deliberate and exacting. Quatre Lithographies embodies the primary color palette and pure reductive forms of this late style.
For de Kooning, the 1980’s heralded a period of prolific output but also of renewed focus and clear thinking. Coming out of a decade of dark and self destructive behavior, by 1981 he was living full time in East Hampton with his ex-wife, Elaine de Kooning. Newly sober and surrounded by close friends and assistants, he began to paint again with his former exuberance. His studio at this time featured a new type of easel, devised by Elaine’s brother, that could rotate paintings 360 degrees and raise and lower them easily so that he could work on all parts of a canvas at once. This process helped imbue his late works with a sense of consistency that transforms itself into movement as the viewer’s eye travels throughout the composition. This lightness and movement is clearly reminiscent of the works of Henri Matisse, whom de Kooning clearly identified with late in his life. In 1980, he stated "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 he was old and he cut out colored patterns and he made it so joyous. I would like to do that, too--not like him, but joyous, more or less " (Willem de Kooning, quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swann, de Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2004, p. 589). He soon made the joyous, lyrical and sinuous lines of Matisse a part of his vernacular.
Quatre Lithographies, published in 1986 by the French publisher Éditions de la Différence, embodies each element of this late style. You can feel the consistency imparted by the mechanical easel, the lightness of Matisse, the newfound sobriety and poignancy of form. Published as a portfolio of four in an edition of 150 (50 numbered in Roman numerals) this set is rarely seen complete. Of the very few lithographs created by de Kooning late in his career, this set is unequivocally the most finished, complete and visually engaging. It is easily the crowning achievement of the graphic works of Willem de Kooning.