Two decades after his death, Robert Motherwell is shaping up to be the most profound of the Abstract Expressionists.
Robert Motherwell was the quiet AbEx. His work is lyrical rather than percussive, more rooted in European tradition than that of some of his fellow painters who advocated a violent break with the past. In his person, too, Motherwell was different. He didn’t flame out or self-destruct; in addition to being an artist he was a deeply learned and thoughtful writer and editor who defined and defended the New York School and established its place in art history. After his death in 1991 at the age of 76, Motherwell’s reputation took a dip, and his work was relatively neglected in comparison with that of splashier and more notorious figures such as Jackson Pollock. But now, with the benefit of distance and hindsight, Motherwell is looking more important than ever, even like the deepest of the Abstract Expressionists.
In fact, this fall marks something of a Motherwell moment. Several current and recent museum shows around the country are drawing public attention to this American master. Most significantly, the catalogue raisonné of his paintings and collages is being published at the end of this month, the culmination of a years-long project spearheaded by the Dedalus Foundation, the New York-based nonprofit set up by the artist to protect his legacy, educate the public and advance the work of younger artists. Co-published with Yale University Press, the catalogue will feature almost 3,000 color illustrations illustrating 2,820 works. Jack Flam, a distinguished art historian who co-authored the catalogue (with Katy Rogers and Tim Clifford) and also serves as president and CEO of the Dedalus Foundation, says, “This will make people see his work in a different way; it contains pieces never before reproduced in color, and some never even seen before.” Flam believes that putting so much art together in one place will reveal “how powerful the work is, seen cumulatively. When you see a lot of someone’s work, it can have a deadening effect, but for us, working on the catalogue, it was the opposite.”
Through September 30, the Provincetown Art Association and Museum in Massachusetts is presenting “Motherwell: Beside the Sea,” the first major exhibition dedicated to the artist’s work done on Cape Cod, where he was living at the time of his death. Co-curated by his daughter Lise Motherwell, it will include rare early work from 1942 and marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of Motherwell’s “Beside the Sea” series. Motherwell had a longstanding artistic interaction with the sea (also evident in his “Summertime in Italy” series done in Liguria in 1960), though certainly not in any traditional sense of “marine painting.” As Flam puts it, “Even though the sea paintings are not representational in the usual way, they strongly refer to their roots in observed nature and capture the different moods of the sea.” In general, Motherwell’s art is poetic and allusive—he once told an interviewer, by way of explanation, “I think a lot of my work has to do with correspondences that are not at all literal. I mean that my orange picture is not merely pure orange…It also has to do with fruit, with the sun, with skin, lots of things I’m not even aware of…”
Two other Motherwell shows were on view until recently: The Asheville Art Museum in North Carolina had “The Essential Idea: Robert Motherwell’s Graphic Works” up through August 26, and the Denver Art Museum was showing some 20 paintings and drawings from its collection—including the last iteration of the iconic “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” series—under the rubric “Focus: Robert Motherwell.” The works on paper were taken down in July, but the paintings will be on view through into 2013.
Motherwell’s body of work is large and in many media; he was equally at home in painting, drawing, printmaking and collage. As a printmaker, he began early, around 1943, and in the early 1960s began collaborating with Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE). Later he relied on the expertise and sensitivity of master printers Ken Tyler and Catherine Mosley. Jerald Melberg, a dealer in Charlotte, N.C., who has a specialty in Motherwell, believes that printmaking was one of the things that made Motherwell distinctive among the artists of the New York School. “Many made prints,” he says, “but Motherwell was the only one who looked at his prints as being as serious and important as his other bodies of work. He showed that prints can have the same poetry and fluidity as paintings. The transfer of media was, for him, astonishing.”
Motherwell ended up producing around 500 distinct prints, and, as Melberg and other dealers of Motherwell point out, this prolific quality of his ensured the continuing availability and affordability of his work. “One reason he continues to be popular,” says Melberg, “is that you can acquire a gorgeous Motherwell print for $5,000 to $8,000.” Prints generally range up to around $20,000, though a rare or exceptionally large print can cost $90,000 or $100,000. Small drawings can be had for $15,000 to $30,000. Los Angeles dealer Manny Silverman, who represents Motherwell on the West Coast, concurs with Melberg with regard to the artist’s collectibility: “Motherwell was fairly prolific, worked in many different media and had the wherewithal to leave a large estate, and that really benefits his legacy to the extent that a lot of people in the newer generations who would not normally be able to become familiar with his work have been able to do so. One of the glorious things about Bob was that he was smart enough to keep a lot of things back.” The Dedalus Foundation holds a large stock of unique work, and periodically, judiciously, releases fresh material onto the market.
As an artist with deep roots in European modernism, Motherwell was also attracted to collage, a genre in which he created highly prized and unusual works. “He and Rauschenberg were the main two American artists practicing collage,” notes Flam. “Motherwell’s is an extensive, beautiful and powerful series of work. One of the interesting things about it is that only about three of his collages use photographic imagery, so in a way it’s the opposite of Rauschenberg’s, which has a strong montage element.” Motherwell’s collages make extensive use of paper ephemera such as postage stamps, theater tickets, scraps of colored paper and fragments of music scores—the latter particularly relevant in light of the artist’s ongoing interest in art forms other than the visual, namely music and literature. In addition to collage proper, Motherwell also made paintings and prints that mimic collage. In 2006, Melberg mounted a show titled “The Torn Edge,” devoted entirely to Motherwell collages and collage-related prints.
Collage, in any of its forms, was a way for Motherwell to explore the properties of space. The critic Dore Ashton wrote, “The artist takes pleasure in contrasting surfaces and spatial placements; in tearing, cutting, and gluing, and in creating a special, binding light.” This process is akin to what he accomplished in his “Open” series of paintings begun in 1967—inspired by seeing two canvases in his studio, the back of one against the front of the other, he pursued the possibilities of superimposed rectangles to the limit. But there was another side to his interest; Motherwell himself wrote, “For a painter as abstract as myself, the collages offer a way of incorporating bits of the everyday world into pictures…Collages are a modern substitute for still life…I do feel more joyful with collage, less austere. A form of play.”
Motherwell’s engagement with modernism and European art is understandable in terms of his life experiences and education. Born in Aberdeen, Wash., in 1915, the son of a banker, he moved with his family to Los Angeles and then to San Francisco. He went to Stanford University, where he majored in philosophy, not art. While in Palo Alto he was invited by a friend to the home of Michael Stein, brother of Gertrude and a pioneering collector of modern art in his own right. At Stein’s house Motherwell saw his first Matisse and felt a “shock of recognition.” He later said, “I knew that was the kind of thing I wanted to do.” Soon he was passionately studying French culture, particularly poetry; Baudelaire—himself a serious art critic—was a special favorite.
He moved to Paris in 1938, painted, lived the bohemian life and had his first one-man show. The following year he returned to the States, where he studied art history with Meyer Schapiro at Columbia and made friends with the circle of exiled European Surrealists that included André Breton, Max Ernst, André Masson and Roberto Matta. While he would never be a Surrealist, Motherwell learned from them about the liberating effects of automatism and the access it opened up to the mysteries of the unconscious. (A devoted Freudian, Motherwell once said that psychoanalysis saved him from ending up dead at an early age like Pollock and David Smith.)
Motherwell’s engagement with literature went way beyond the French poets; he was hugely influenced by Edgar Allan Poe and truly obsessed by James Joyce. One of his last projects was a series of etchings to illustrate an edition of Ulysses published in 1988 by the Arion Press. He often titled his works with phrases lifted from Joyce’s works, and of course his foundation is named for Joyce’s hero Stephen Dedalus. Flam believes that Motherwell’s “cultural engagement and breadth of knowledge and experience are important parts of what makes his abstract work have such resonance in terms of your experience of the real world.” But in the era before Donald Judd and Dan Flavin made it all right for an artist to also be a writer and thinker, Motherwell’s literary proclivities led some to assume that he was basically an intellectual with a nice sideline in art. The suggestion outrages London and New York dealer Bernard Jacobson: “The perception is that here’s this rich kid, obviously a very brilliant academic, who’s doing paintings at the weekend. Wrong! He was obsessed with work, painting, printmaking, collage. And then he had energy left over to write, as well.”
The dealer yields to nobody in his admiration of Motherwell. “I’m actually re-reading Saul Bellow right now,” says Jacobson, himself a passionately literary man, “and I’m amazed at how much more depth there is in him than when I read him as a young man. It’s the same with Motherwell; I knew he was good, but not that he was great. It took me time. You have to have lived a bit, produced a few kids, had your house robbed, lost great friends. Then you can go back to Motherwell and Bellow and find the depth.”
He cites the “Elegy” and “Open” series as examples of two different modes of Motherwell’s greatness. The “Elegies,” with their rhythmically alternating ovals and vertical columns suggesting the battle between life and death, their title a reference to Republican Spain defeated by fascism, express violence and the perils of power. The “Opens,” on the other hand, “are much more cool, contemplative with a capital ‘C,” says Jacobson.
Jacobson says that he has gotten so involved with Motherwell’s work over the past 10 years that it now takes up about half his day’s work. And he has quite a lot to do selling Motherwells—especially, he says, to Europeans. Referring to the turn-of-the-century flow of art from Old World aristocrats to the Huntingtons and Fricks of the New World, he says, “I’m worried that America is going to do the same. We’re buying Motherwells by the planeload from formerly rich American collectors. I think America has sold him short, and I hope and pray that they honor his centenary in 2015.” Be that as it may, Motherwell would be glad to know how much he is appreciated in Europe, considering his influences and allegiances. “I find his paintings very American, but they come out of Matisse and Picasso,” says Jacobson. “He’s a modern-day Cézanne or Matisse, and his works lie down very well next to Piero della Francesca or Poussin as time goes on.”
This article originally appeared in the September issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “Deep Water.”