Why This Art: ‘Montauk Highway’

Willem de Kooning showed artist Nick Aguayo a master painter’s trick.

willem de kooning’s montauk highway, 1958, contains fractures between space and scale, control and freedom, making the painting feel fresh and urgent
© 2022 Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In my freshman or sophomore year of high school, I decided to become a painter. I devoured art history books of all kinds, but one title quickly became the focus of my early obsession: The Essential Willem de Kooning, by Catherine Morris. It was a pocket-size introductory book that had beautiful samples of work from various chapters of the artist’s life and career. As I recall, one prominent painting in it was Montauk Highway.

I don’t remember the first time I saw Montauk Highway in person; however, I make a point of spending time with it on each visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (it’s a work that we Angelenos are lucky to have in the museum’s permanent collection). At 59 by 48 inches, Montauk Highway isn’t a small painting, but it isn’t exactly a giant one either. Yet the sense of space and scale gives it monumentality. This rupture between scale and size, and their non–mutual exclusivity, is something that I think of often when working and looking at paintings: how small paintings can feel grand and, in turn, huge paintings small. It is a matter of bodily scale, a reflection of the painting as a physical object and its relationship to the viewer and the maker.

This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
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This signaling of the maker is evident in Montauk Highway, particularly in the sweeping vertical gesture that jets down from the top of the composition, referencing the whiplash of arm and brush as much as a 1958 convertible hightailing it out of the city. De Kooning was known for constantly reworking his paintings, but Montauk Highway possesses an urgency and freshness that make it seem as if it was simply born into existence.

Once you get past the roaring engine squeal of a first glance, a sensitively nuanced and advanced structure is revealed. Each component of the composition feels tightly and masterfully controlled, yet the painting maintains a sense of wild openness. It’s this tension that I find endlessly compelling. •

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