Willem de Kooning’s boundary-crossing oeuvre defies classification. Although the artist is commonly linked with abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, his figurative paintings veer away from the abstract, reveling in the contours of the female body through an aggressive blend of gestural strokes. As de Kooning himself once proclaimed, “Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented.”
Some two decades after his death in 1997, the Dutch-American painter remains one of the giants of modern art. Now, his fans have a new reason to be excited: previously unknown works allegedly painted by de Kooning during the ’70s are due to hit the market this fall.
According to the New York Post’s Melissa Klein, Chelsea gallery owner David Killen discovered the paintings—as well as a canvas he attributes to Swiss-German modernist Paul Klee—in a storage unit he purchased last year for $15,000. The 200 canvases housed inside had originally belonged to art conservator Orrin Riley, who ran a restoration business out of his Manhattan studio until his death in 1986. Following the 2009 death of Riley’s partner, Susanne Schnitzer, the works spent nine years in limbo as the couple’s executors tried to track down their original owners.
“If you look at [the paintings] closely, you can see there are slight tears and holes here and there," Killen tells Anthony G. Attrino of NJ.com. "I believe they were given to Orrin to be restored after the owners collected insurance."
By the end of their search, the executors still held hundreds of paintings, and after receiving the New York State Attorney General Office’s permission to sell the “abandoned” property, they decided to offer the works to auction houses.
One high-profile company turned down the paintings, Killen tells Klein, and it was easy to see why: “I thought it was a bunch of junk," the art dealer explains to Attrino. "I saw good, bad and ugly. Overall, I thought it was garbage, but I'm always looking for filler."
Killen offered the executors $75 per painting, or $15,000 overall, and resigned himself to selling the works at his gallery’s bimonthly auctions. Then, as he began loading the storage locker’s contents onto a truck, he saw several boxes labeled “de Kooning.” Inside were six paintings—previously identified by the executors as markedly less-valuable prints—that appeared to bear the artist’s singular stylings, and though he couldn’t be sure, Killen knew the discovery might be the key to recouping his investment (and then some).
To verify the works’ authenticity, Killen turned to de Kooning’s former studio assistant, Lawrence Castagna, and an expert who provided his take on the condition of anonymity, Henri Neuendorf reports for Artnet News.
“In my opinion, they are [de Koonings],” Castagna tells the Post’s Klein. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Castagna believes the works were painted by de Kooning during the 1970s. At the time, the artist was pursuing a newfound interest in sculpture and switching up his painting style, crafting “large abstract works in bright tones with simpler, more restrained gestures” than earlier paintings, according to modern art education nonprofit the Art Story. The works failed to generate much interest when they first debuted, Castagna says, and by the end of the decade, de Kooning had begun to show signs of dementia. Despite being hampered by the devastating effects of the disease, he continued to work throughout the 1980s, painting his last work in 1991.
According to AFP, the anonymous expert Killen consulted also stated his belief that the paintings were genuine de Koonings.
“I can see in his eyes, he's shaking," Killen explains. "He said, 'This is exactly what de Kooning was doing in the '70s, one after the other.'"
The Willem de Kooning Foundation does not authenticate works, so it will be difficult for Killen to obtain official verification. Although the dealer informed the foundation of his discovery, Artnet News’ Neuendorf writes that he has yet to receive an official response back.
The art world’s reaction to the find remains to be seen. Marion Maneker of Art Market Monitor expressed skepticism over the story, writing, “If these works were to be accepted as de Koonings, they’re not major works. But these small abstracts from the 1970s have been doing well on the market lately (which only makes their discovery a little too on the nose, as they say).” Others, like Castagna, are celebrating the possibility of reviving six forgotten de Koonings.
Killen will unveil the paintings at his gallery tonight and on the auction floor come fall 2018.