De Kooning’s mental and physical health was precarious from the late 1970s through the 1980s. Years of alcoholism were exacting their toll and, though he gave up drinking in 1981, he soon developed Alzheimer’s disease. By 1990, he stopped painting. Despite these challenges, he had fertile periods of productivity and stylistic reinvention. Breaking from his labored technique and from compositions characterized by density, he loosened and quickened his approach. This resulted in paintings like Pirate (Untitled II). Its free-flowing ribbons of color curving across patches of glowing white, yellow, pink, and green foreground de Kooning’s virtuosic hand. He used a taper’s knife (a flat-bladed tool used in drywall construction) to pull the paint into thick bands. This work was likely painted on top of an earlier discarded painting, whose original composition was sanded down to a ghost of itself. Bright and fresh, Pirate (Untitled II) belies the difficulty of the artist’s later years.
Additional text from In The Studio: Postwar Abstract Painting online course, Coursera, 2017