Willem de Kooning's greatest paintings capture the inherent paradox of the artist's aesthetic practice, amply demonstrated by the bold and pivotal Montauk III. He did not strive for resolution in his works; he sought instead to capture the elusive and variable quality of life, particularly in the ferment of 20th century America from the 1940s through the 1960s. His slippery forms oscillate between figuration and abstraction, conservative and radical, composed and agitated, with as much inventiveness as his choice of brilliant color palette and lush range of brushwork. In every decade of his long and illustrious career, de Kooning kept a firm grip on his medium as his muse. The glories of paint exhibited in works such as Montauk III from 1969 are quintessential de Kooning, whose wrist, arm or entire body became one with the rhythms of his brush or palette knife. His independent spirit infuses his paintings with a heroic quality redolent of individualism rather than conformism. He was at heart a pluralist who reveled in the multi-dimensional and multi-thematic in all his works. If abstraction or any other consecrated style was the current mode of fashion in the art world, de Kooning would just as soon rebel against such trends, regardless of the fact that he was a premier practitioner of Action Painting or Abstract Expressionism. De Kooning's gradual but eventually final move from New York City to the environs of Springs, Long Island was a reflection of his move away from the communal artistic existence that had fostered and supported his breakthrough years of the late 1940s that culminated with Woman I in 1950-52 and came to fulfillment with the late Urban Landscapes of the 1950s. By the end of the decade, de Kooning sought reflective contemplation rather than aggressive assertiveness.
Montauk III is one of five known paintings of 1969, all titled Montauk, including Montauk I in the collection of the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut; Montauk IV in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and Montauk V in the Martin Z. Margulies Collection, Florida. The title refers to the name of a small hamlet near Easthampton out on the far tip of Long Island, as well as Montauk Highway that extends the length of the island. De Kooning loved the landscape as it reminded him of his younger days in the Netherlands. He had begun to summer there in the late 1950s and by 1963 had moved out of the city to a new home and studio in The Springs, close by Montauk and the home of many artists, including Jackson Pollock, and considered one of the cradles of Abstract Expressionism. For de Kooning, the color of the sand, sun, sea grass and water led to a more brilliant palette than his grittier urban-inspired paintings of the previous decades. A strong sense of bright sunlight permeates the palette and the brushstrokes are more languid and liquid. In contrast to the more urban works of the 1950s, the superstructure of the females in landscapes of the early 1960s is not as overt; whiplash line is replaced by large areas of freely brushed color. There is a clear shift to a luminous pastel palette borrowed from nature, water and landscape that reflected his change in environment and mood.
By 1966-67, the pastel tones found in Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point (1963, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam) are punctuated by stronger tones of acid green and lipstick red as in Montauk III. This palette brings forth memories of the late 1940s paintings, such as Asheville, with the cool contrasts of pink, green and yellow counterbalanced with white and black contours and lines. In a 1967 exhibition catalogue for the artist's current work, Thomas Hess noted, "de Kooning has gone back to smaller, more complicated shapes and interlockings, which recall his black and white abstractions of 1947-1950, and to brighter deeper colors. The concept of simplicity as a means has been abandoned. Unity of effect, however, has been reinforced by the change. The figure with its central focus comes across like a crescendo, like a huge dissonant chord played by the whole orchestra." (Exh. Cat., New York, Knoedler & Co., De Kooning: Recent Paintings, 1967, p. 36)
De Kooning's mood and aesthetic impulse has clearly begun to shift and Montauk III, with its sister paintings, stands at the pivotal moment in 1969. Throughout the 1960s, de Kooning created several paintings of abstracted women whose fleshy outlines melt into this seaside and sun drenched landscape, but the vast majority consisted of smaller easel- sized paintings on paper and canvas, usually no larger than 5 by 4 feet. The Montauk series is rare for its larger scale and nearly square format and is a culmination of the 1960s paintings just as it is a prelude to the even more abstracted landscapes of the 1970s. Montauk I is a canvas measuring 88 x 77 inches, similar in scale to the monumental paintings of the late 1970s, while Montauk II and Montauk III are the second largest size in the series, 72 x 70 inches. Within this enlarged expanse, de Kooning's female figure reemerges with renewed vigor. More so than anywhere else in this series, the figure in Montauk III is an instance of liquid liberation with distended legs and a splayed posture that disseminate across the picture plane and recall the bronzes such as Standing Figure (1969-1984), first sculpted by de Kooning in clay in Rome during the summer of 1969.
Shortly after the Montauk series, de Kooning stopped painting for a span of a few years until the burst of creative activity that produced the paintings of the late 1970s. In style, square proportions and scale, Montauk III and its brethren are important precursors of the paintings of the 1970s but with a palette more related to sun and land than the watery blue paintings of the late 1970s. The present work is a testament to de Kooning's career-long ability to negotiate the slippery boundaries between figure and ground, abstraction and representation, while celebrating the fluidity of oil paint that allowed his forms to seemingly dematerialize within light and color. As he cycled through his rural environs and walked the beaches, de Kooning was free to paint what he wished, and produced canvases such as Montauk III that reinvestigated the pastoral tradition of Northern European landscape and the Western art tradition of the nude as tactile flesh.
Oil on two joined sheets of paper mounted on canvas
Willem De Kooning
Saint-Paul de Vence, Fondation Maeght, La Vivant aux Etats-Unis, July - September 1970
Milan, Palazzo Reale, Riccerca Dell'Identita, October 1974 - January 1975
East Hampton, Guild Hall Museum, Willem de Kooning: Works from 1951-1961, May - July 1981, cat. no. 26
Santa Fe, Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of New Mexico, Romantic Modernism, 100 Years, June - July 1994, p. 32, illustrated in color
72 1/2 x 70 1/2 in. 184.2 x 179.2 cm.
Estate of the artist
Matthew Marks Gallery, New York (acquired by the present owner from the above in November 1997)