December 13, 2014



AMERICAN 1915 - 1991 


A symbolic tale of our times, comparable to the legend of Apelles' leaving his sign on the wall, is that of the modern artist who, given the wrappings from issues of a foreign review by a friend, trans forms them into two collage masterpieces; and who, given a stack of Japan paper, makes six drawings and on seeing them the next day is so excited by the black ink having bled into orange at its edges that he decides to make six hundred more drawings. The collages are N.K.F. Numbers One and Two, the drawings are the group called "Lyric Suite," and the artist is Robert Motherwell. Does art choose the artist, or does the man choose art?

 Motherwell's choice is one of the most fascinating in modern art. As a young man of twenty-five, a university student who majored in philosophy, he decided to devote himself completely to painting, a decision which at the time held promise of little but hard work and probable discouragement. Yet, a few short years later, he was to find himself one of the leading figures in the greatest revolution in modern art since cubism, abstract expressionism.

 Recently, in a television interview, Robert Motherwell remembered the aims of the early period of abstract expressionism as being "really quite simple in a way, almost too simple, considering what has happened in the last twenty years. But really I suppose most of us felt that our passionate allegiance was not to American art or in that sense to any national art, but that there was such a thing as modern art: that it was essentially international in character, that it was the greatest painting adventure of our time, that we wished to participate in it, that we wished to plant it here, that it would blossom in its own way here as it had elsewhere, because beyond national differences there are human similarities that are more con sequential . . (bibl. 36).

 The measure of the success of the abstract expressionist artists may be gauged by our response to the movement's ethical stand today it seems an inevitable development, it is surrounded by an atmosphere of "of course." But in the late '30s and early '40s there was violent resistance to this "passionate allegiance." We forget, in the complexity of our present worldwide artistic and political engagements, that period's artistic and political isolationism (how controversial then were Gertrude Stein and Wendell Willkie!), the mania for the impressionist masters, the conviction, where there was any interest at all, that avant-garde was not only a French word but an Ecole de Paris monopoly. But the greatest resistance of all came from other American painters— the regionalists, the social realists and the traditionalists.

 No account of the period can ignore Motherwell's role as an internationalist. In a sense a turn toward both revolution and inter nationalism were in the air, for the various national financial depressions had united most of the Western countries in crisis, if not in political agreement. And the artists, like the philosophers and the religious, had been the least economically valued members of distressed societies.

 Without transition the struggle against Depression conditions be came the struggle against War. War on such a scale that "conditions" became an obsolete word, faced down by the appalling actual and philosophical monolith of historical event. But the artists were not faced down by the war vocabulary. With the advent of war a hetero geneous number of American artists whose only common passion was the necessity of contemporary art's being Modern began to emerge as a movement which, in Boris Pasternak's famous description of a far different emergency, as he relates in his autobiography Safe Conduct, ". . . turned with the same side towards the times, stepping forward with its first declaration about its learning, its philosophy and its art."

 Underlying, and indeed burgeoning within, every great work of the abstract expressionists, whether subjectively lyrical as in Gorky, publicly explosive as in de Kooning, or hieratical as in Newman, exists the traumatic consciousness of emergency and crisis experienced as personal event, the artist assuming responsibility for being, however accidentally, alive here and now. Their gift was for a somber and joyful art: somber because it does not merely reflect but sees what is about it, and joyful because it is able to exist. It is just as possible for art to look out at the world as it is for the world to look at art. But the abstract expressionists were frequently the first violators of their own gifts; to this we often owe the marvelously demonic, sullen or mysterious quality of their work, as they moved from the pictorial image to the hidden subject.

 Motherwell's special contribution to the American struggle for modernity was a strong aversion to provincialism, both political and aesthetic, a profound immersion in modern French culture (especially School of Paris art and the poetry and theories of the Symbolist and Surrealist poets—conquest by absorption, like the Chinese), and a particular affinity for what he has sometimes called "Mediterranean light," which in his paintings seems to mean a mingling of the light of the California of his childhood with that of Mexico and the South of France. This affinity may explain somewhat the ambiguity between the relatively soft painted edges of many of his forms and the hard, clear contour they convey, especially in the series of "Elegies to the Spanish Republic." He can employ a rough, spontaneous stroke while evoking from the picture plane with great economy a precise personal light. There is no atmospheric light in his paintings; if he uses grey it is never twilight or dawn. One of his important early paintings is called Western Air (page 13) and the light in it persists in many later works.

 Motherwell must have shown a surprisingly early talent for art, considering that at eleven he was awarded a fellowship to the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles (where Philip Guston also studied briefly). Although he also attended art school at seventeen, he was not to make the final decision to devote himself to painting until 1941. The intervening years had been spent largely in the study of liberal arts and philosophy. He was led by his admiration of Delacroix's paintings to choose for his thesis subject at Harvard the aesthetic theories expounded in Delacroix's journals. On the advice of his teachers, he therefore spent the year 1938-39 in France. Delacroix led to Baudelaire, Baudelaire to the theories of the French Symbolists and especially Mallarme, and there followed a close study of the Parisian painters.

 Shortly after Motherwell's return to the United States he moved to New York. He discussed his first days there in a recent talk at the Yale University Art School:

"One of the great good fortunes I have had in my life, and there have been several, was that at a certain crucial moment in my life when I was in my mid-twenties and still hadn't really decided what I wanted to do, though in another way I'd always wanted to be a painter but through the circumstances of fate had never known a modernist one ... for better or worse, I don't know—at a certain moment through a contact with a friend who is now professor of music at Brandeis University I decided to go to New York . . . and study with Meyer Schapiro. In those days there was nothing like there is here, that if you were interested in contemporary art there was a place where you could go and be oriented The closest approach to it, though he is essentially a classical scholar, essentially devoted to the premises of art history and so on, in those days was Meyer Schapiro. And I went to New York and studied with Schapiro. Also by chance took a room near him and knew nobody in New York —nearly died of loneliness, at how hard and cold and overwhelming it seemed to me as a person from the Far West, which is with all its defects a somewhat more casual and open place. 

"And sometimes at eleven o'clock in the night I would drag the latest picture I had been making on the side in the most amateurish way around to Schapiro. And one day in exasperation really, because I had then no conception of how busy people are in New York, he said, 'It takes me two hours to tell you as best I can what any painter colleague could tell you in ten minutes. You really should know some artists.' And I said, Well, I agree . . . but I don't know any.' " (bibl. 38)

 As a child, Motherwell was haunted by the fear of death, perhaps partially because of his asthmatic attacks. He grew up during the Great Depression and, no matter what one's circumstances, one could not help being affected by it. The first foreign political event to engage his feelings was the Spanish Civil War, that perfect mirror of all that was confused, venal and wrong in national and international politics and has remained so. For a slightly younger generation than Motherwell's, and by slightly I mean only by ten years or so, World War II was simply part of one's life. One went to war at seventeen or eighteen and that was what one did, perfectly simple, and one thought about it while one was about it, or you might say, in it. But Motherwell's ethical and moral considerations were already well formed by the time that war broke out, and for him the problems were quite different and also far more shattering psychologically.

 It is no wonder then that when Meyer Schapiro introduced him to the European refugee artists who had fled here from the Fall of France, he was strongly drawn to them, both as emblems of art and also as emblems of experience—an experience which no American artist save Gertrude Stein suffered as the French themselves did. Their insouciant survival in the face of disaster, partly through character, partly through belief in art, is one of the great legends, and it did not escape him. To recall the presence of these artists is indeed staggering (see page 74). Motherwell's affinity for French Symbolist and Surrealist aesthetics made him a quick liaison between the refugees and certain New York artists whom he scarcely knew at the time. The capitulation of France had brought about an intense Francophilism among all liberal intellectuals, especially those who felt strongly about the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War; and the fate of Great Britain was still in question. It was not too difficult to feel a strong identification, and of course these artists were already heroes of the modern artistic revolution; if some of them hadn't invented it, they had certainly aided, abetted and extended it. In the artistic imagination these refugees represented everything valuable in modern civilization that was being threatened by physical extermination. It had never been more clearthata modern artist stands for civilization.

 Modern artists ideologically, as the Jews racially, were the chosen enemies of the authoritarian states because their values were the most in opposition, so that one had a heightened sense, beyond the artistic, of seeing a Lipchitz or a Chagall walk free on the streets of New York. It is impossible for a society to be at war without each responsible element joining the endeavor, whether military, philosophical or artistic, and whether consciously or not. The perspectives may be different, but the temper of the time is inexorable and demanding for all concerned. I think that it was the pressure of this temper and this time that forced from abstract expressionism its statement of values, which is, and probably shall remain, unique in the history of culture. While the other protesting artistic voices of the time were bound by figuration and overt symbolism, the abstract expressionists chose the open road of personal responsibility, naked nerve-ends and possible hubris, and this separated them from the surrealists, the Mexican School and the American social realists. Belief in their personal and ethical responses saved them from aestheticism on the one hand and programmatic contortion on the other. Abstract expressionism for the first time in American painting insisted upon an artistic identity. This, of course, is what made abstract expressionism so threatening to other contemporaneous tendencies then, and even now. The abstract expressionists decided, instead of imitating the style of the European moderns, to do instead what they had done, to venture into the unknown, to give up looking at re productions in Verve and Cahiersd'Art and to replace them with first hand experimentation. This was the great anguish of the American artists. They had a sound theoretical, but no practical, knowledge of the suffering involved in being extreme; but they would learn. They shot off in every direction, risking everything. They were never afraid of having a serious idea, and the serious idea was never self referential. Theirs was a struggle as ultimate as their painting. A struggle which, in the poet Edwin Denby's description in his rem iniscence of the '30s, was against ". . . the cliche about downtown painting in the depression—the accepted idea that everybody had doubts and imitated Picasso and talked politics. None of these features seemed to me remarkable at the time, and they don't now. Downtown everybody loved Picasso then, and why not. But what they painted made no sense as an imitation of him. For myself, something in his steady wide light reminded me then of the light in the streets and lofts we lived in. At that time Tchelitchew was the uptown master, and he had a flickering light."

 During this period Motherwell veered between the opposite poles of the marvelous and the somber, if not morbid; from Mallarme's Swan, imaged in subtle glacial beauty, to Pancho Villa's corpse, hanging bullet-riddled beside his live image, in which pink stains take on the aspect of not-yet-dried blood. Shortly before, in 1941, at the beginning of his painting career he had done three divergent pictures—JLa belle mexicaine (of his first wife, a Mexican actress), an imaginary landscape, The Red Sun, and the more purely conceptualized The Little Spanish Prison. The first owes a great deal to Picasso, the second (page 96) to the surrealist theory of automatism and especially to Masson, and the third (page 16) is connected in my mind to the royal House of Orange, a modern version of Dutch clarity of tone allied with Spanish reserve and elegance. As a selftaught painter, Motherwell had many avenues open to him, and in beginning he did not close any of them off as possibilities.

 Certain of the abstract expressionists seem to have burst into paint with an already emergent personal force from the very first works we know—one thinks particularly of Motherwell and of Barnett New man. The variety from period to period in each of these artists en compasses a broadening of technical resources, as it does in Rothko also, and moves in a steadily rising power of emotional conviction. They have had a conviction, if not a style, from the beginning, more ethical than visual, which has left them free to include anything useful and has guided them away from the peripheral. As has Clyfford Still, for example, each has chosen on several occasions to make moral statements in relation to his art, rather than aesthetic ones.

This is, of course, a matter of temperament. The passions of others of their colleagues have led to far more abrupt and dramatic changes. Motherwell once remarked that an artist is known as much by what he will not permit as by what he includes in the painting. One would be hard put to aver whether Newman or Pollock, de Kooning or Rothko, was more drastic in his decision between the Dionysian and Apollonian modes of feeling, between seething impasto excitation and somber, subtly evoked grandeur.

Motherwell himself is very canny in his intuition of the relative values of these modes, as they apply to his expressive purposes, and of their limitations as abstract polarities for a sensibility which is modern both through intellectual act of faith and through natural inclination. The complexity of his modern aesthetic is unified by certain basic preferences which govern every period of his work and are of an almost textbook simplicity: a painting is a sheer extension, not a window or a door; collage is as much about paper as about form; the impetus for a painting or drawing starts technically from the subconscious through automatism (or as he may say "doodling") and proceeds towards the subject which is the finished work.

 These basic preferences have, however, a superstructure of great variety and subtlety. Motherwell first showed at Peggy Guggenheim's gallery Art of This Century in the early '40s. The gallery chooses the artist, but the artist also chooses the gallery; for better or worse the gallery is the artist's public milieu, and in this case it was certainly for the better. Art of This Century was the head quarters in America for the militant surrealists present in New York, and it also featured importantly Kandinsky, Mondrian, van Doesburg, Helion, as well as Baziotes, Pollock, Hofmann, Rothko, and Still, among the Americans. Motherwell thus found himself in a milieu where simultaneous passions for the work of Mondrian, Max Ernst, de Chirico, Leger and Joseph Cornell were enriching rather than confusing, joined together in time, place and enthusiasm rather than compartmentalized and classified as they would have been in most art schools of the time, if taught at all. As the youngest member of this group, Motherwell already showed a stubborn individuality and purposefulness which were to remain characteristic through the years of experimentation with motif and symbol that lay ahead. In the preface to Motherwell's first exhibition, James Johnson Sweeney remarked on the artist's thinking ". . . directly in the materials of his art. With him, a picture grows, not in the head, but on the easel from a collage, through a series of drawings, to an oil. A sensual interest in materials comes first." (bibl. 142, page 91)

 This sensual interest in materials has led the artist away from the easel towards the small, decisively executed paper works of the Lyric Suite series and towards the monumental canvases, murals really, such as Black on White, Africa, and Dublin in 1916, with Black and Tan. Motherwell's admiration, which has continued throughout his career, for Matisse and Picasso, especially the "steady wide light" of which Edwin Den by wrote, have led him to a clarification of form and a toughness of drawing and color which would be impossible without the hard scrutiny of this light. It is important to differentiate the light in different painters. The distinction is not always historical, nor is it always about source. It is in its actuality the most spiritual element, technical only in so far as it requires means, painterly means, to appear at all. It is the summation of an artist's conviction and an artist's reality, the most revealing statement of his identity, and its emergence appears through form, color, and painterly technique as a preconceptual quality rather than an effect.

 Motherwell once mentioned his experience as a child of being thrilled when a teacher drew in colored chalks a schema of the daily weather—an orange sun with yellow rays for fair weather, a purple ovoid cloud with blue strokes slanting through it for rain. Later, he remembered this experience, much as one remembers in adulthood having been pleased by Blake's Songs of Innocence as a child, only to find that they are masterpieces even to adults. Perhaps his belief in the communicative powers of schemata stems from this child hood experience. At any rate, his sensuality is involved as strongly with schemata as it is with texture or color. The sexual atmosphere of Two Figures with Cerulean Blue Stripe (page 52), for example, has a specific tenderness and a poignancy which has nothing to do with "figure" painting or with handling; it is dependent on the direct diagrammatic relation in a pictorial sense of the two forms, where the blue stripe is a curtain drawn away from the intimacy of the scene. It is the opposite of the Balthus painting of the gnome drawing the curtain from the nude girl's window—where a surrealist voyeurism gives that painting piquancy, in the Motherwell a Courbet like health establishes a sense of both sexuality and repose.

 Motherwell has also, through the same preoccupation with material, been closely involved with "series" of paintings— in quotes because the series sense is not necessarily that of subject matter but of sensitivity to findings in the motif which yield further discoveries in the material. The motif for the Elegies was discovered while he was decorating a page of a poem by Harold Rosenberg in 1948 (page 76). Almost immediately the motif appears in a Spanish context, related to Lorca's poetry: At Five in the Afternoon , Granada; and then shifts to the more specific associations embodied in the "Elegies to the Spanish Republic." Sometimes the motif itself dictates how to use the medium, where to drag it, splash it, flatten an intervening area or flow it, in order to accomplish the presentation of the relationship of the images as a whole experience. The range of technical procedure between Elegy LVII (page 66) with its almost expressionistic drama to the strict, flat statement of Elegy LV (page 47) reveals the fecundity Motherwell has found in this motif and also indicates his ability to bridge the gap between action painting and what Clement Greenberg has called the "Post-Painterly Abstractionists." The latter Elegy in particular is also related to the transcendent exposure of the most recent works. And always there is an absolute belief in the reality of the schema, executed with such force that individual paintings of the series have been variously interpreted as male verticals and female ovoids, as bulls' tails and testicles hung side by side on the wall of the arena after the fight, and as purist formal juxtapositions of rectangular and curvilinear forms. As with the great recent painting Africa , the possibility of the schema's arousing such a broad range of associations, depending on the emotional vocabulary of the viewer, is a sign of its power to communi cate human passion in a truly abstract way, while never losing its specific identity as a pictorial statement. The exposure is one of sensibility, rather than of literal imagistic intent, and therefore engages the viewer in its meaning rather than declaring it. (contd.on page 23)

 This is an extreme divergence in aim from other abstract expressionists, excepting Rothko, Newman and Gottlieb, while the compulsive urgency and crudity of Motherwell's drawing in paint separates him even from the latter artists. His work poises itself on the razor's edge of rawness and elegance, of brutality and refinement. With this pressure constantly on the hand, the arm, the eye, he must constantly re-invent the occasion for creation. 

As devoted to exploration of motif as many of his contemporaries, he seems never to have to avoid repetition— indeed, he seems almost incapable of it. To recognize this quality in his temperament one need only compare the sensibilities involved in the Femmes d'Algers variations of Picasso and the "Blast" series of Gottlieb, for example, with Motherwell's series of "Elegies to the Spanish Republic." Without making a qualitative judgment, one may say that Picasso and Gottlieb are able to achieve their visual explorations within the hierarchy of an important and persuasively established pictorial structure; whereas Motherwell from At Five in the Afternoon (1949; page 36) on, is fighting an over-dominant and already clarified symbolic structure from which, through the years, he will wrench with astonishing energy some of the most powerful, self-exacerbat ing and brutally ominous works of our time, and some of the most coldly disdainful ones as well (emptying of Self). In this sense, Motherwell creates the structure that opposes him, the domination of which he must overcome to remain an artist— it is not, as with Arshile Gorky, the marvelous finding of an apparently infinite number of family forms which may be juggled and tensed for more or less specific narrative purposes. In Motherwell the family of forms is a relatively small one and the plastic handling of them carries the burden of intention, whether passionate or subtle, whether buoyant or subdued; they are never used for narrative purposes, which is perhaps why Motherwell thinks of Gorky as a surrealist artist (bibl. 38a), so different is their approach to form. Though both stemmed from the surrealist theory of automatism, Gorky proceeded into the physiological "innards" of form and reference, while Motherwell dragged like a beast of prey his automatic findings into the neutral light of day and of society.

 Another important series, and one which both advances from previous preoccupations with gesture and proceeds toward later works with calligraphic elements, such as In Green and Ultramarine (page 49), is the group of works entitled "Beside the Sea." Here the motif of an abstract wave breaking into the horizon and charging above it releases a marvelous arm-energy, and the characteristic Motherwell bands below, rather than becoming indications of landscape, give the works an emblematic drive. The sea is as much a metaphor as a throw of the dice is, or the "Spanish Elegies."

 Here too, as elsewhere, beginning with Viva (page 16) and continuing through the "Je t'aime" series (page 38), many of the works show Motherwell's literal use of calligraphy as part of the compositional meaning of the painting. In the case of the "Beside the Sea" pictures, his name is usually scrawled through one of the dark bands at the bottom to lighten the tone of the passage and to give variation and variety which balance the sharp force of the "wave" above. In almost all of Motherwell's work the use of the signature is compositional: an insistence on identity, to be sure, and also an indication of the totality of the move away from easel painting— few of the pictures are "signed" in the traditional sense, they are registered by the artist as part of his life, in a matter-of-fact pictorial way, rather coldly. Like de Kooning's, his calligraphy is so beautiful it would be a loss not to incorporate it in the picture.

 Gertrude Stein gives us, in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, some thoughts which are particularly applicable to the stance of much of Motherwell's work: "She always says that americans can understand Spaniards. That they are the only two western nations that can realize abstraction. That in americans it expresses itself by disembodiedness, in literature and machinery, in Spain by ritual so abstract that it does not connect itself with anything but ritual. . . .

 "Americans, so Gertrude Stein says, are like Spaniards, they are abstract and cruel. They are not brutal they are cruel. They have no close contact with the earth such as most europeans have. Their materialism is not the materialism of existence, of possession, it is the materialism of action and abstraction " This observation, published in 1933, was prophetic of the whole new movement which was about to occur in American painting and sculpture, and which indeed had already been initiated by the three abstract painted metal heads of that year by David Smith, though she could not have known it. Her insight has also a relevance to the influence of contemporary Spanish artists, from Picasso and Gonzalez to Miro, on American and European artists, and particularly to the difference of application of this influence by the Americans, as opposed to, let us say, the French and the Dutch, and to the reverberations back on recent Spanish art. Her own inclination toward automatism was similar to that of many of the abstract expressionists: it fed and deepened a sense of structural necessity and of personal identity rather than obscuring the first and diffusing the latter, as automatism did so often with the surrealists.

 Though both Picasso and Gonzalez as Parisians have had a universal influence stylistically, their full, bold, and fresh spirit has been most importantly absorbed in American art, I think, by Motherwell and David Smith, respectively. An essential caustic Spanish rigor reached these Americans in their different media, a toughness, a tenacity and wrought-iron insistence which seem to have been imparted to no one else. For them, the example of identity was stronger than the style, as the idea of automatism was stronger than the practice. Instead of inspiration, the example of Picasso gave Motherwell control in his passion, as that of Gonzalez gave Smith elegance in his ambition, both necessary qualities for the accomplishment of basically unruly artistic ends. In contrast to the surrealist painters, Motherwell does not yield to the subconscious, he is informed by it.

 And this requires the daily confrontation of ethical as well as plastic purposes. There can be no prefigured beauty to be achieved and no predetermined set of symbolic referents which have not to be re-examined and tested for validity with each facing of the canvas. The constant testing and retesting of pictorial meaning, of the "charge" of imagery, has led to an enormous variety of content from work to work, and it has also led to the continual replenishment of the sources of that content, whether one calls it inspiration, inventiveness, restlessness, painterly ambition, whatever. The kind of artistic anxiety which seems to characterize Motherwell is the furthest from the kind that is debilitating. It has led him to find new skills in each period to serve the still mysterious demands of his consciousness.



Acrylic on Canvas 

Dimensions: 182.9  × 457.2

© Dedalus Foundation, Inc./ Licensed by VAGA. New York, NY


Etching and Aquatint in Colors on George Duchêne

Hawthorne of Larrouque Handmade Paper

Dimensions: 29.8 × 74.9 cm

©The Dedalus Foundation, Inc.

The Limited Editions Club, New York
Dimensions: 591 x 495 mm.
© Dedalus Foundation, Inc./VAGA.


Acrylic on Canvas
Dimensions: 182.9 x 457.2 cm
Collection: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid

Over his career Motherwell explored and refined in what he considered an 'endless challenge' of a serial image which came to be known as the Spanish Elegy series. From 1948, Motherwell explored this iconic image in drawing, painting and later in printmaking. His constant search for the perfect rendition of this form was infinite, explaining:

‘’ My Elegies … are silent, monumental, more architectonic, a massing of black against white, those two sublime colors, when used as a color … The reason I've made so many works … that could be called series … They remain an endless challenge ‘’ Robert Motherwell


Lithograph, Screenprint, and Monoprint on White

Arches Cover Mouldmade Paper

Dimensions: 153 × 101.6 cm

© Dedalus Foundation, Inc./VAGA.



Dimensions: 106.7 × 81.3 cm

© Dedalus Foundation, Inc./VAGA.

September 1965-February 1966
Synthetic Polymer Paint on Canvas
Dimensions: 208.3 x 351.1 cm
Credit Line: Gift of S. I. Newhouse, Jr.


UNTITLED ( ELEGY ), 1983-1985

©The Dedalus Foundation, Inc.


Acrylic With Graphite and Charcoal on Canvas
Dimensions: 208.3 x 289.6 cm
Credit Line: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum,
New York Gift, Agnes Gund, 1984

March 19, 1979 - June 3, 1979
Robert Motherwell & Black, curated by Stephanie Terenzio, is shown at the William Benton Museum of Art, University of Connecticut, Storrs. Terenzio becomes a close collaborator over the next decade, working on an unpublished memoir with Motherwell and editing the first edition of the Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell (Oxford University Press, 1992).

ELEGY STUD NO: XIII, 1976 – 1979

©The Dedalus Foundation, Inc.

Oil and Charcoal on Canvas
Dimensions: 174.6 x 522.6 cm
Collection: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Acrylic and charcoal on canvas
Dimensions: 209.6 x 478.8 cm
Collection of David Mirvish
Art © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Photo by Craig Boyko

DANCE I, 1978

Lift-Ground Etching and Aquatint on J.B. Green Paper

Dimensions: 49.5 × 77.5 cm

Edition of 30 + 10AP

©The Dedalus Foundation, Inc.

Acrylic on Canvas
Dimensions: 243.8 x 304.1 cm
Art © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Courtesy: Private collection


Original Lithograph Printed in Three Colors (Black, Yellow - Ochre, Red)
on White Hand-Made Paper Bearing the Tyler Graphics ltd. Watermark.
Dimensions: 38.1 × 95.9 cm
© Dedalus Foundation, Inc./VAGA.

Acrylic and Pasted Papers on Upson Board
Dimensions: 50.8 × 40.6 cm
© Dedalus Foundation, Inc./VAGA

IN BLACK & WHITE NO: 2 ( AFRICA ) - 1975
Synthetic Polymer Paint on Canvas
Dimensions: 183.3 x 408.9 cm
Credit Line: Given anonymously
© Dedalus Foundation, Inc./VAGA.

Synthetic Polymer Paint on Canvas
Dimensions: 183.3 x 408.9 cm
Credit Line: Given anonymously
© Dedalus Foundation, Inc./VAGA.

Acrylic on Canvas Mounted on Panel
Dimensions: 15.5 × 30.5 cm
© Dedalus Foundation, Inc./VAGA.

IBERIA NO: 2 - 1958
Oil on Canvas
Dimensions: 119.7 x 203.8 cm
Collection: Tate. Acquired by Purchase and Gift From
The Dedalus Foundation 1996

Acrylic on Canvas Board
Dimensions: 45.7 × 61 cm
© Dedalus Foundation, Inc./VAGA.

Acrylic and Pasted Papers on Canvas Mounted on Masonite
Dimensions: 91.4 x 91.4 cm
Collection: Collection of Mr. and Mrs. L. Frankfort

Spring 1971
The first two volumes of the Documents of 20th-Century Art are published by Viking Press: Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp by Pierre Cabanne, with an introduction by Motherwell, and My Galleries and Painters by Daniel-Henry-Kahnweiler.
A la Pintura goes to press at ULAE. On seeing the finished product, Motherwell feels that something is missing and returns to work on several new images.
In late April, the documentary filmmaker Michael Blackwood begins filming Robert MotherwellSummer of 1971 in Greenwich. Filming continues in Greenwich and Provincetown through the summer.

NO. III - 1953
Oil on Canvas
Dimensions: 137.1 x 184.5 cm
© Dedalus Foundation, Inc. /VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2013
Courtesy Onnasch Collection

Oil on Cut-and-Pasted Paper
Dimensions: 73.3 x 58.1 cm
Credit Line: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Marion Joseph Lebworth

Lithograph with Embossing
Dimensions: Plate: 12.1 x 25.4 cm -  Sheet: 40 x 50.8 cm
Credit Line: Gift of James Wilder Green

Colored Ink on Japanese Paper
Dimensions: 28.2 x 23 cm
Credit Line: Gift of the Artist in Memory of Frank O'Hara

Dimensions: 15 x 37.75 cm
© Dedalus Foundation, Inc./VAGA.

Dimensions: 141 × 101.6 cm
© Dedalus Foundation, Inc./VAGA.

One From a Portfolio of Ten Lithographs
Dimensions: Composition: 50.3 x 65.4 cm; Sheet: 56.5 x 76.5 cm

Lithograph and Printed Paper on Paper
DimensionsImage: 1067 x 650 mm
Collection: Tate

Oil on Canvas
Dimensions: 213.4 x 609.6 cm)
Collection: Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Purchased with Funds Provided
 by the Art Museum Council and Gift of the Dedalus Foundation


Lithograph and Screenprint
Dimensions: 101.6 × 76.2 cm
© Dedalus Foundation, Inc./VAGA.


Dimensions: 106.7 × 71.8 cm
© Dedalus Foundation, Inc./VAGA

Ink on Paper and Watercolor on Paper
Dimensions: 22.9 x 29.4 cm each
Credit Line: Gift of the Artist
Collection: The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Artist

Acrylic, Charcoal, and Graphite on Canvas
Dimensions: 223.5 x 447 cm
Collection: Art Gallery of Ontario. Anonymous Gift, 2003

Screenprint on Paper
Dimensions: 810 x 598 mm
Collection: Tate

Oil on Canvas
Dimensions: 208.2 x 351.1 cm
Credit Line: Charles Mergentime Fund

Elegy to the Spanish Republic108 describes a stately passage of the organic and the geometric, the accidental and the deliberate. Like other Abstract Expressionists, Motherwell was attracted to the Surrealist principle of automatism—of methods that escaped the artist's conscious intention—and his brushwork has an emotional charge, but within an overall structure of a certain severity. In fact Motherwell saw careful arrangements of color and form as the heart of abstract art, which, he said, "is stripped bare of other things in order to intensify it, its rhythms, spatial intervals, and color structure."

Motherwell intended his Elegies to the Spanish Republic (over 100 paintings, completed between 1948 and 1967) as a "lamentation or funeral song" after the Spanish Civil War. His recurring motif here is a rough black oval, repeated in varying sizes and degrees of compression and distortion. Instead of appearing as holes leading into a deeper space, these light-absorbent blots stand out against a ground of relatively even, predominantly white upright rectangles. They have various associations, but Motherwell himself related them to the display of the dead bull's testicles in the Spanish bullfighting ring.

Motherwell described the Elegies as his "private insistence that a terrible death happened that should not be forgot. But," he added, "the pictures are also general metaphors of the contrast between life and death, and their interrelation."

Elegy to the Spanish

ELEGY STUD NO: XIII, 1976 – 1979

©The Dedalus Foundation, Inc.


Acrylic and Graphite on Paper

15.2 × 20.3 cm

©The Dedalus Foundation, Inc.

Robert Motherwell was only 21 years old when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, but its atrocities made an indelible impression on him, and he later devoted a series of more than 200 paintings to the theme. The tragic proportions of the three-year battle—more than 700,000 people were killed in combat and it occasioned the first air-raid bombings of civilians in history—roused many artists to respond. Most famously, Pablo Picasso created his monumental 1937 painting Guernica as an expression of outrage over the events. From Motherwell’s retrospective view, the war became a metaphor for all injustice. He conceived of his Elegies to the Spanish Republic as majestic commemorations of human suffering and as abstract, poetic symbols for the inexorable cycle of life and death.

Motherwell’s allusion to human mortality through a nonreferential visual language demonstrates his admiration for French Symbolism, an appreciation he shared with his fellow Abstract Expressionist painters. Motherwell was particularly inspired by the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s belief that a poem should not represent some specific entity, idea, or event, but rather the emotive effect that it produces. The abstract motif common to most of the Elegies—an alternating pattern of bulbous shapes compressed between columnar forms—may be read as an indirect, open-ended reference to the experience of loss and the heroics of stoic resistance. The dialectical nature of life itself is expressed through the stark juxtaposition of black against white, which reverberates in the contrasting ovoid and rectilinear slab forms. About the Elegies, Motherwell said, “After a period of painting them, I discovered Black as one of my subjects—and with black, the contrasting white, a sense of life and death which to me is quite Spanish. They are essentially the Spanish black of death contrasted with the dazzle of a Matisse-like sunlight.” This and other remarks Motherwell made regarding the evolution of the Elegies indicate that form preceded iconography. Given that the Elegies date from an ink sketch made in 1948 to accompany a poem by Harold Rosenberg that was unrelated to the Spanish Civil War, and that their compositional syntax became increasingly intense, it seems all the more apparent that the “meaning” of each work in the series is subjective and evolves over time.

Nancy Spector

Lithograph on Paper
Dimensions: 994 x 698 mm
Collection: Tate

Acrylic on Canvas
Dimensions: 197.5 x 508.6 cm
Collection: University of Iowa Museum of Art. Purchased with the
Aid of Funds From The National Endowment for the Arts with
Matching Funds and Partial Gift of the Artist, 1973.289

pasted paper and crayon on paperboard
Dimensions: 101 × 68.6 cm
© Dedalus Foundation, Inc./VAGA

Planographic Lithograph Printed in Black and White From
Three Aluminium Plates Impression: Trial Proof I
Dimensions:  38.4 h x 91.2 w cm
Purchased with the assistance of the Orde Poynton Fund, 2002
© Dedalus Foundation, Inc./VAGA. Licensed by Viscopy

Colored Ink on Japanese Paper
Dimensions: 28.2 x 23.1 cm
Credit Line: Gift of the Artist in Memory of Frank O'Hara

UNTITLED ( P77-3122 ) - 1977
Black Ink on Monotype Ground
Dimensions: 76.2 × 56.9 cm
© Dedalus Foundation, Inc./VAGA.

Ink on Rice Paper
Dimensions: 27.9 × 22.9 cm
© Dedalus Foundation, Inc./VAGA.

Dimensions: 71.1 × 45.7 cm
© Dedalus Foundation, Inc./VAGA.

Ink on Paper
Dimensions: 28.9 × 36.8 cm
© Dedalus Foundation, Inc./VAGA.


To the Palette for A La Pintura (1969)

Source: Oxford University Press

American painter, printmaker and editor. A major figure of the Abstract Expressionist generation, in his mature work he encompassed both the expressive brushwork of action painting and the breadth of scale and saturated hues of colour field painting, often with a marked emphasis on European traditions of decorative abstraction.
Motherwell was sent to school in the dry climate of central California to combat severe asthmatic attacks and developed a love for the broad spaces and bright colours that later emerged as essential characteristics of his abstract paintings. His later concern with themes of mortality can likewise be traced to his frail health as a child. From 1932 he studied literature, psychology and philosophy at Stanford University, CA, and encountered in the poetry of the French Symbolists an expression of moods that dispensed with traditional narrative. He paid tribute to these writers in later paintings such as Mallarmé’s Swan (1944; Cleveland, OH, Mus. A.) and The Voyage (1949; New York, MOMA), named after Baudelaire’s poem. As a postgraduate student of philosophy at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, in 1937–8, he found further justification for abstraction in writings by John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead and David Prall, later relating their views on the expression of individual identity through immediate experiences to his own urge to reveal his personality through the gestures of his brushwork (see Action Painting).
Motherwell decided to become an artist after seeing modern French painting during a trip to Paris in 1938–9, but in order to satisfy his father’s demands for a secure career he first studied art history from 1940 to 1941 under Meyer Schapiro at Columbia University, NY. Through Schapiro he met Roberto Matta and other exiled European artists associated with Surrealism; their use of automatism as a means of registering subconscious impulses was to have a lasting effect on Motherwell and on other American painters such as Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner and William Baziotes, whom he befriended in New York after a trip to Mexico in 1941 with Matta.
While in Mexico, Motherwell executed his first known works, the Mexican Sketchbook of 11 pen-and-ink drawings in black and white (artist’s col.; for first page, see Arnason, 1982, p. 29). These were influenced by Matta but were more abstract and spontaneous in appearance. The appeal of automatist spontaneity, however, was complemented for him by the clear structure, simple shapes and broad areas of flat colour in paintings by Piet Mondrian, Picasso and Matisse.
The interaction of emotionally charged brushwork with severity of structure began to emerge in paintings such as the Little Spanish Prison (1941–4; New York, MOMA), a deceptively simple composition of slightly undulating vertical stripes in yellow and white interrupted by a single horizontal bar.
In 1943 Motherwell produced a series of dark, menacing works of torn and paint-stained paper in response to the wartime atmosphere. Surprise and Inspiration (Venice, Guggenheim), originally called Wounded Personage, equated the act of tearing with killing and the paint-soaked paper with bandages. These collages, which heralded his lifelong commitment to the medium, were presented as the focal point of his first one-man exhibition held in 1944 at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery, New York.
During the 1940s, like many of his colleagues in the New York School, Motherwell remained devoted to recognizable imagery, to the expressive potential of calligraphic marks and to subject-matter of a literary and of a political nature, as in Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive (gouache and oil with collage on cardboard, 1943; New York, MOMA). The abstract paintings for which he is best known, such as Elegy to the Spanish Republic XXXIV (1953–4; Buffalo, NY, Albright–Knox A.G.), one of a series of more than 140 large canvases initiated in 1949, expressed a nostalgia that he shared with many of his generation for the lost cause of the Spanish Civil War. The works in this series typically consist of black, organic ovals squeezed by stiff, vertical bars against a white ground, retaining the unpremeditated quality of an ink sketch even when enlarged to enormous dimensions, as in the much later Reconciliation Elegy . He conceived of the shapes as elements within an almost musical rhythm, rich in associations with archetypal imagery of figures or body parts but sufficiently generalized to convey a mood rather than a specific representation.

During the late 1940s and 1950s Motherwell spent much of his time lecturing and teaching; he taught at Black Mountain College, NC, in 1950, and from 1951 to 1959 at Hunter College, New York. He also worked on three influential editorial projects: the Documents of Modern Art series, which he initiated in 1944 and which included his most important literary contribution to the history of modern art, The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology (New York, 1951); Possibilities magazine, from 1947; and Modern Artists in America (New York, 1951), which he co-authored with Ad Reinhardt.
By the time that he returned fully to his art in the late 1950s, Motherwell had developed various different series. The Elegies, severe in their concentration on black and white and in their ever-growing scale, were the vehicle of his most profound emotions, while the small oil paintings occasioned by the decay of his second marriage, the Je t’aime series of 1954–8 (e.g. Je t’aime IIA, 1955; New York, Grossman priv. col., see Sandler, 1970, p. 246), expressed more intimate and private feelings. His collages, which he began to reproduce also by lithographic means in the 1960s, began to incorporate material from his studio life, such as cigarette packets and labels from artists’ supplies, so as to become records of his daily experiences (e.g. Summer Lights Series published by Gemini GEL in 1973; see Arnason, 1982, pp. 203–6). The coastline near the artists’ colony of Provincetown, MA, where Motherwell began to spend his summers in 1962, inspired works such as Beside the Sea No. 5 (1962; artist’s col., see Sandler, 1970, p. 209), a series of 64 pictures in which he splashed oil paint against rag paper with the full force of his arm as a physical equivalent for the action of sea spray on the bulkhead in front of his studio.
From 1968 to 1972 Motherwell worked on a series of paintings with the generic title Open as a personal response to the colour field painting made by younger abstract painters in the 1960s. Typical of this more contemplative strain of his art is Open No. 17: In Ultramarine with Charcoal Line (polymer paint and charcoal on canvas, 1968; artist’s col., see H. Geldzahler: New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940–1970, New York, 1969, p. 236), which consists of a surface of a single colour on to which he has drawn three sides of a rectangle in charcoal lines: an abstract equivalent to the views through open windows favoured by European painters such as Matisse as metaphors for the relationship between the interior world of the emotions and the external world of the senses.
Motherwell’s first important print, the lithograph Poet I (London, Tate), was published by Tatyana Grossman’s Universal Art Editions in 1961. He subsequently produced an important body of printed work, notably A la pintura (1972; London, BM), a limited edition book of 24 unbound pages printed in letterpress, etching and colour aquatint, in which he exploited the medium’s capacity for combinations of rich colour and exacting line to approximate the sensuous effects of his paintings. One of Motherwell’s most significant, late series of paintings and drawings was the Hollow Men. While the title of these works is taken from T. S. Eliot’s poem of despair for Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Motherwell’s paintings evoke a different spirit: the artist’s desire to slice through superficiality and reveal the essence of his art. As such, the Hollow Men incorporates both the style of the Elegies and that of the Opens. The organic forms of the Elegies are now translucent rather than solid, and consequently more exposed; they are set against a threatening black ground. In these shapes, Motherwell has also revealed more of his automatic drawing, which he believed was the essence of his artistic personality, than in any large-scale works since the 1950s. The Hollow Men stands as one of Motherwell’s final attempts to assert the authenticity of his Abstract Expressionist art.
Robert Saltonstall Mattison
From Grove Art Online

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