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A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection

East Hampton III

East Hampton III
oil on canvas
30 x 36 in. (76.2 x 91.4 cm.)
Painted in 1977.
Estate of Willem de Kooning, New York
Matthew Marks Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1997

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Lot Essay

"I wanted to get in touch with nature. Not painting scenes from nature, but to get a feeling of that light that was very appealing to me ... It would be very hard for me now to paint any other place but here." Willem de Kooning

Alive with dazzling color, light and movement, East Hampton III is a majestic ode to the Long Island landscape that drove Willem de Kooning’s practice to extraordinary new heights during the late 1970s. Rendered with ribbons and swathes of thick, expressive impasto, its electrifying abstract surface captures the artist at the height of his powers. Fiery passages of yellow, red and orange collide with flesh-toned pinks and peaches; mottled shades of green, grey and blue dance like reflections upon water. Painted in 1977—a year described by the critic David Sylvester as de Kooning’s “annus mirabilis”—the work quivers with newfound freedom. Inspired afresh by the luminous coastal surroundings of his East Hampton home, de Kooning returned to painting with renewed fervor, channelling the influence of Soutine, Matisse and Cézanne into exhilarating abstract visions of nature. Contemporaneous with masterworks such as Untitled XIX (Museum of Modern Art, New York), The North Atlantic Light (Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam) and Untitled V (Buffalo AKG Art Museum), East Hampton III glows with the light of rediscovered passion, capturing the euphoria of this miraculous period.

De Kooning had first begun spending his summers in the Hamptons during 1959. The watery landscapes of Long Island had already seduced many of his contemporaries, including Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, as well as Robert Motherwell and Arshile Gorky. By 1962 de Kooning had purchased a small house in Springs, East Hampton, as well as a studio space nearby, and would move there permanently the following year. The wide open Atlantic vistas, particularly at Louse Point, reminded him of his native Holland, which he had left behind in 1926. In an interview with Harold Rosenberg in 1972, de Kooning spoke of the “indescribable tones” that arose when the light hit the water. “I started working with them and insisted that they would give me the kind of light I wanted,” he explained. “One was lighting up the grass. That became that kind of green. One was lighting up the water. That became that grey. Then I got a few more colors … I got into painting in the atmosphere I wanted to be in” (W. de Kooning, quoted in H. Rosenberg, “Interview with Willem de Kooning,” ARTnews 71, September 1972, p. 58).

The paintings of 1977, in particular, brought de Kooning’s engagement with the East Hampton landscape to a climax. After spending much of the early 1970s immersed in other media—including sculpture and lithography—he had returned to painting with fresh inspiration in 1975. Buoyed by his love affair with the young Emilie Kilgore, he embarked upon a period of intense artistic production, defined by a newly liberated gestural language that seemed to imbibe the liquid beauty of his surroundings. The curator Diane Waldman hailed “an astonishing range of subtle and voluptuous color, sun-drenched pinks and greens, mauves, blue-greens, reddish oranges and the familiar but revitalized electric blue” (D. Waldman, Willem de Kooning in East Hampton, exh. cat. Solomon R. Guggenheim Musuem, New York, 1975, p. 26). Joyful freedom emanated from every stroke; the raw, visceral qualities of his earlier canvases melted into wild sensual delight. For Sylvester, these paintings were on a par with the glorious late masterworks of Monet, Renoir, Bonnard and Titian, attaining “a total painterliness in which marks and image coalesce completely and every inch of the canvas quivers with teeming energy” (D. Sylvester, “De Kooning I”, About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-1996, London, 2001, p. 349).

While many of de Kooning’s works of this period remained untitled, East Hampton III offers an explicit tribute to the landscape. Bathed in lustrous golden tones, it confronts the viewer like a radiant sunrise over the ocean. Flashes of sky blue seem to capture the sparkle of light upon water, with brilliant white highlights gaping through the texture. Jewelled tones of purple and indigo merge with subtle passages of sage and grey, which flicker like passing clouds. Paint flows in torrents, colliding in thick marbled pools and dissipating in watery drips and rivulets. Elsewhere it is dense and pliable, moulded like wet clay as if with the artist’s bare hands. Fleshy forms and sensuous undulations suggest fleeting glimpses of female figures: a feature of de Kooning’s works of this period, evoking the seminal Women that had launched his career in the 1950s. Riddled with physical sensation, the painting captures the ecstasy of a period in which—as de Kooning put it—“I [could] not lay down the brush” (W. de Kooning, quoted in M. Stevens and A. Swan, De Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2005, p. 564).

The work also bears witness to the evolution of de Kooning’s technique during the mid-1970s. Despite their improvised quality, his paintings were carefully composed, allowing chance effects to emerge from controlled conditions. The artist would being by preparing a luminous white ground before sanding it down, repainting and sanding again “until the surface became almost translucent” (W. de Kooning, quoted in De Kooning: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011, p. 430). On top of this, the artist would begin drawing in rough charcoal based on sketches of previous paintings, which he would pool around him while working on several canvases at once. The white spaces in between his lines would in turn suggest further forms, which he would embellish using a long housepainter’s brush loaded with color. De Kooning worked with an almost musical sensibility, varying tempo and rhythm in a manner that he likened to Miles Davis. At various points, he would slow the drying process by pressing newspaper or tracing paper into the surface of the paint. These prints were hung from his studio beams, offering inspiration for his next move.

"De Kooning’s paintings of the Seventies are an annihilation of distance … They are the sort of transcendental paintings that might fittingly have concluded one of the most glorious and sustained careers in twentieth century art." David Sylvester

De Kooning’s East Hampton paintings brought him new levels of critical acclaim. In 1978, the year after the present work, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York mounted an exhibition dedicated exclusively to these canvases. In interviews surrounding the show, de Kooning paid tribute to the various artists who had inspired him in his return to painting. Henri Matisse was one; Paul Cézanne another, admired for his careful accrual of brushstrokes that seemed to lock into rhythmic patterns. Among his most significant influences, however, was Chaïm Soutine, whose Céret landscapes in particular—argued Sylvester—were important precedents for the East Hampton works. “[Soutine] builds up a surface that looks like material, like a substance,” de Kooning elaborated. “There’s a kind of transfiguration, a certain fleshiness in his work … a glow that [comes] from within the paintings” (W. de Kooning, quoted in D. Waldman, Willem de Kooning, New York, 1988, p. 136). The same, too, may be said of East Hampton III: de Kooning’s paint takes on a living quality, every stroke alight with the thrill of nature.

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