Lot 46
  • 46

Willem De Kooning

10,000,000 - 15,000,000 USD
10,245,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Willem de Kooning
  • Montauk III
  • signed
  • oil on two joined sheets of paper mounted on canvas


Estate of the Artist
Matthew Marks Gallery, New York 
Private Collection, United States (acquired from the above in November 1997)
Sotheby's, New York, November 9, 2010, Lot 25
Acquired by the present owner from the above


New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., Gorky, De Kooning, Newman, June - September 1969
Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Fondation Maeght, L'Art Vivant aux Etats-Unis, July - September 1970, p. 53, illustrated 
Milan, Palazzo Reale, Riccerca Dell'Identità, October 1974 - January 1975
East Hampton, Guild Hall Museum, Willem de Kooning: Works from 1951-1981, May - July 1981, cat. no. 26, not illustrated
Santa Fe, Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of New Mexico, Romantic Modernism, 100 Years, June - July 1994, p. 39, illustrated in color
New York, The Pace Gallery, The Figure: Movement and Gesture, Paintings, Sculpture and Drawing, April - July 2011, cat. no. 33, n.p., illustrated in color
New York, Museum of Modern Art, de Kooning: A Retrospective, September 2011 - January 2012, cat. no. 143, p. 388, illustrated in color


Peter Schjeldahl, "New York Letter," Art International, October 1969, p. 75 (text) 
Jerry Saltz, "Definitive at MoMA, the Full, Amazing, Ever-evolving, Never-retreating Story of Willem de Kooning," New York Magazine, September 26, 2011, pp. 74-75, illustrated in color

Catalogue Note

Montauk III is Willem de Kooning’s stirring paean to Arcadia, a pivotal monument from 1969 that spotlights the artist’s extraordinary capacity for rendering light, landscape, and figural movement in oil paint. A resoundingly personal work that beams with emotional sentiment and radiates de Kooning’s reflective contemplation at the end of the 1960s, Montauk III richly captures the atmospheric serenity of its eponymous seaside environs. Just as Woman I of 1950-52 narrated the speed, grit, and coarseness of being in the urban landscape, representing the figure as irrevocably entangled within its environment, Montauk III continues this existential exploration of time and place, but replaces the aggressive strokes of New York City for the tranquil buoyancy of the rural East End. De Kooning's slippery forms oscillate between figuration and abstraction: shapes both composed and agitated, receding in and out of their backgrounds with as much inventiveness as his brilliant color palette and lush range of brushwork. If the smokestack greys and cool industrial blues of Woman I recall the matrix of the city, Montauk III’s fleshy pinks, aquamarine blues and sunkissed golds arouse a warm blissful repose on the shore. Significantly included in the recent 2011 Willem de Kooning retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Montauk III emanates an interior phosphorescence that imbues it with a poignant beauty of unparalleled proportions.

Throughout the 1950s, de Kooning gradually spent more time on Long Island until moving permanently in 1963 to a new home and studio in Springs, a small hamlet in East Hampton on the far tip of Long Island, nearby Montauk and close to the dwellings of many artists, including Jackson Pollock. Moved by the brilliant light and natural colors of his newfound surroundings, de Kooning selected a range of glistening hues borrowed from this idyllic landscape of sun, grass, sand, sea, and sky. Montauk III arrived at a critical moment in de Kooning’s career, as the change in his environment inspired a renaissance in the artist’s mood and aesthetic impulses. As the legs of the main figure distend diagonally across the composition, bending in motion as if mid-swim, the broad reflective fields of color that cushion her impel weightlessness, suggestive of submersion in water. In contrast to the brusquer 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. A strong sense of bright sunlight permeates the palette, and the brushstrokes are more languid and liquid. De Kooning undoes gravity to achieve the painting’s irresistible transcendence. Speaking to critic Harold Rosenberg in 1971, de Kooning described the light in Springs that drove the renewed vigor of his painting at this moment: “When the light hits the ocean there is a kind of a grey light on the water… Indescribable tones, almost. I started working with them and insisted that they would give me the kind of light I wanted… I got into painting in the atmosphere I wanted to be in. It was like the reflection of light. I reflected upon the reflections on the water, like the fishermen do.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, de Kooning: A Retrospective, 2011, p. 352)

Of the five known paintings that de Kooning executed in 1969, all are titled Montauk and three are held in important international collections: Montauk I in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut; Montauk IV in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam; and Montauk V in the Martin Z. Margulies Collection, Florida. From this remarkable series, Montauk III is second only in size to Montauk I, which at 88 by 77 inches is the artist’s largest painting since Easter Monday from 1956. 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 five by four feet. The Montauk series is rare for its larger scale and nearly square format, and is as much a culmination of the 1960s paintings as it is a prelude to the even more abstracted landscapes of the 1970s. John Elderfield notes that the Montauk paintings “continue de Kooning’s interest in the subject of figures in a landscape but brings his allover, abstract approach to the theme, initiated two years earlier in Two Figures in a Landscape, to its full potential, more completely deconstructing the figures into the slippery paint surface.“ (Ibid., p. 387) Within an elegant terrain of loosely applied brushstrokes, the central figure is tightly focused but fragmentary, rewarding close attention—an elongated turquoise foot seems to perch at the bottom left of the composition, while underdrawing just above the figure’s right thigh suggests the possible presence of a flexing elbow.

Writing to the legendary art collectors and de Kooning patrons Joseph and Olga Hirshhorn in January 1969, the artist described his progress on one of the Montauk paintings, which he did not identify: “I am working for weeks and weeks on end on a large picture… and have to keep the paint wet… so that I can change it over and over—I mean, do the same thing over… and over, and that it will look fluid… and fresh—as if it was really a small picture.” (Ibid., p. 387) The present work is a testament to de Kooning’s career-long ability to negotiate the 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. Just as the figure evaporates graciously into abstracted fields of paint, de Kooning’s life in Springs allowed him the freedom to roam his pastoral surroundings and become one with his environment—like Monet at Giverny, Montauk III is de Kooning’s Twentieth Century Nymphéas, a painting that captures the sheer translucency of daylight glimmering from within the heart of the painter.