|Robert Motherwell is an icon of modern art and one of the founding members of the Abstract Expressionist movement that took the art world by storm over half a century ago. This group of action painters forever changed the dynamics of the art world with their confrontational explosion of abstract images. Bold pigment and explosive lines energized the canvas, dazzled the eye , and challenging the intellect to decipher the plethora of possibilities that confronted the viewer.
Their then innovative and avant-garde work seems to many now to belong to a historical past more suited to the walls of a museum than in a discussion of modernism. But this examination of the work of one of their leading lights will reopen your eyes to this key moment of American art. As a youth, Motherwell spent time studying art in Southern California and developing his love of color. He matured into a multifaceted artist: a painter of great originality, a critic who fought for his fellow artists, a writer whose book on Abstract Expressionism remains a classic, and a fiercely jealous guardian of his own reputation.
Motherwell was concerned that his passion (mania?) for his “Elegies to the Spanish Republic” series would diminish his career. Rather than diminish, his painting the same image hundreds of times demonstrated his determination and depth. Motherwell was very aware of the belief that an artist who does not grow and evolve may be ignored by history in the long run; yet he continued to push himself to endlessly paint the same themes of life and death, truth and lies, and the eternal battle of good and evil that has confounded humankind for millennia. The late examples here grew out of a project to illustrate a magazine dedicated to the tragic death of the famed Spanish poet, Frederico Garcia Lorca, who was a victim of the Spanish Civil War. Executed on August 19, 1936, Lorca quickly became not only a symbol of the tyranny of Franco’s Fascist government, but one of political oppression in general. Motherwell’s first sketches in black and white evolved into his extended series of elegies of life and death.
|Coming from earlier experiments in Mexico dealing with the life and death of Poncho Villa, the artist now distilled the concept of duende, dealing with the dark forces that surround our existence. A study for the “Elegies” is a meditation on the elemental forces that mold our lives. It is fascinating to examine how the basic geometric forms of the square and rectangle are evolved into phallic images. On these canvases, the battle of death and creation are endlessly fought, but leave us to be the judge as to any existential or formal closure.
Other works, such as “German Line #1” and “The Times in Havana” come from the artist’s life-long fascination with collage. Early in his career, Motherwell was paired with Jackson Pollock for a collage show arranged by Peggy Guggenheim. Pollock hated it and never attempted it again; Motherwell, a Francophile at heart, fell in love with the process and proceeded to employ it throughout his career. These pieces are deeply autobiographical, containing personal mementos. From cigarette packs to shipping labels to newspaper clippings, his life and art are intertwined. These works are boldly colorful and allowed the artist to playfully experiment with creating works that are unabashedly lyrical, employing majestic color harmonies reminiscent of Henri Matisse.
Motherwell’s powerful intellectual curiosity pushed him to experiment endlessly. A number of ink works on rice paper here are based on Japanese calligraphy. For all of their immediacy, they really demonstrate his creative genius. Calligraphy is a disciplined art form that requires years of dedicated training and precise execution. Here the artist pairs it with the gestural, automatic, and random. Seeming opposites are joined together to create a dynamic tension that echoes many of the themes in his career.
This exquisite exhibition provides a sampler of small tastes, under three feet in size, that cover the range of his career. By avoiding bloated pretension, the gracefulness of Motherwell’s aesthetic fusions are shown to their greatest advantage.