Interpreting “de Kooning and Friends” at Sag Harbor Whaling Museum

‘Castelli and Mary Montes Rauschenberg in Car,’ charcoal and pastel in paper, 23×35 by Mary Montes. 

By Dawn Watson

Ever since she was a little girl growing up in Ringwood, New Jersey, Mary Montes has been interested in art and the people who make it.

She credits her uncle, Tom Stadnick, for feeding that fascination. During his family visits to Jersey, the painter would fill her head with outrageous and tantalizing tales of the downtown art scene.

“He was there when they were throwing dishes across the room at the Cedar Tavern,” Ms. Montes recalls of her uncle’s recounting of the wild and crazy antics of his creative kin at the Greenwich Village hangout. Stocked with abstract expressionist painters and beat poets such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, the Cedar infamously became known as the place that banned Pollock for ripping a bathroom door off its hinges and hurling it at Kline, and for barring Kerouac for allegedly urinating in an ashtray.

“He taught me a lot about art, and he told great stories,” she says. “It was a window into where they were coming from and what they were doing. So much so, that it gave me this feeling of almost knowing them.”

Mary Montes, who will open her show “de Kooning and Friends” at the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum on Main Street.

Years later, those stories would become the impetus for her own artwork, some of which will be on view at the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum. The solo show, “de Kooning and Friends,” opens with a reception on Saturday, May 6 and will hang through May 22. The exhibit will include Ms. Montes’s take some of the more famous abstract expressionistic figures of the New York School during the mid-late 20th century, including de Kooning and his wife, Elaine; Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner, and his mistress Ruth Kligman; Andy Warhol; Robert Rauschenberg, whom she met not long before he died in 2008; and famed art dealer Leo Castelli.

Given her own personal history and interests, it’s fitting that the artist, who fuses representation with abstraction and who splits her time between Coral Gables, Florida and the East End, would focus on this particular group.

“The inspiration comes from a love for fellow artists that I have connected with personally and aesthetically thru their work, and who have been a vibrant part of the East End fabric. I thought about them a lot, and for a long time, before I started painting—especially with de Kooning,” she reports. “That whole aesthetic that comes from that era, and the camaraderie that came with it, can’t be replicated, but guess I just wanted to capture it.”

“Willem de Kooning”, 2015, charcoal and pastel on paper by Mary Montes

The show will contain roughly a dozen-plus pieces, including charcoal sketches, paintings and mixed-media works, some of which Ms. Montes is still feverishly working to complete.

“Luckily I can work fast,” she laughs. “When I paint, it can get pretty frenetic. But I can sometimes turn out a painting in a day.”

A personal favorite, still in progress, is a portrait of Ms. de Kooning. In contrast to her actual life, here the female artist is the main subject of the canvas while her husband has been relegated to the background.

“The women are very important to me because they were so accomplished in their own rights — especially Elaine and Lee Krasner — but they kind of got pushed to the back and weren’t as recognized, even though they were making major contributions of their own,” says Ms. Montes. “I like to bring a little light to them too.”

Of course, as the show’s title suggests — de Kooning is the main subject. At least three of the works — a 50-inch-by-40-inch charcoal and pastel on paper, and two medium-sized mixed media portraits—will anchor the exhibit, according to the artist. As a focal point and a nexus, at least for Ms. Montes, it’s his life and work that brings all the rest to the fore, and helps to illustrate the visual narratives that she’d like to tell.

“I hope that the viewers will take away a sense of belonging to the East End and its cultural significance in art history,” she says. “And that these stories of the masters that graced the shores of the Hamptons will come alive.”

“de Kooning and Friends” by Mary Montes will open with a reception at the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum on Saturday, May 6, at 6 p.m. The solo show will remain on view through May 22. For additional information, visit