Friday, November 15, 2013

Notes on Robert Motherwell

Virginia Billeaud Anderson

The beauty of the image McClain Gallery sent to announce its Robert Motherwell: Four Decades of Collage exhibition, which runs through November 16, inspired some brief notes on Motherwell.

Robert Motherwell, Arches Cover, 1976, Acrylic, paper, printed paper and packing tape collage on canvas board, 40 x 30 inches

Encouraged by Peggy Guggenheim to explore the medium, Motherwell began working with collage in 1943, and in that year Guggenheim included him in an exhibition with works by Ernst, Schwitters, Picasso and other important collage artists. “It was here that I found …my identity,” Motherwell said in a 1971 interview.1 Not long after Guggenheim gave him his first solo exhibition, which did not stop him from complaining about the poor quality of Peggy’s liquor according to Jacqueline Bograd Weld’s biography of Peggy Guggenheim.

“You know, I taught them about Stravinsky, about Picasso, about Joyce, about Mondrian, about the Surrealists, about the Dadaists, about Whistler, about John Marin, about Eakins, about I don't know what, to give them the sense that they were living in the midst of one of the most absorbing moments in the history of human culture and it would be fascinating to be aware of it and participate in it and follow it all one's life,” Motherwell said in a discussion about teaching studio art in a university environment. We might glean from his words that his teaching style valued convergences of literature, history and art-history. And if you doubt such an intellectual inclination adds depth to art, try to imagine Picasso perfecting early Cubist fracturing and fragmentation without knowing the writing of Joyce. Motherwell called his own education a “civilized, marvelous education!”

Motherwell was a painter who held a doctorate in Philosophy, was steeped in French Symbolist poetry, and considered himself an “expert” on Delacroix in the Baudelarian vein. Unsurprising he chose Frank O’Hara to organize his MOMA exhibition. He believed that with a poet he had a better chance of “the most radiant” works being shown. His series titled after the Spanish civil war, which reached pure beauty with large oval and rectangular shapes, evolved from scholarly purposeful study, just as the many artworks inspired by music point to his knowledge of it.

The guy worshipped Matisse. “Matisse moves me more than any other twentieth-century painter,” Motherwell said. He considered Matisse who wrote “beautiful blues, reds, yellows stir the sensual depths in men", to be the greatest colorist of the modern era. Here’s an interesting aside: Matisse scholar Jack Flam is President and CEO of the Dedalus Foundation which owns Motherwell’s works and writings. Flam co-authored the 2012 Robert Motherwell Paintings and Collages: A Catalogue Raisonne, 1941-1991. As I write this my bottom’s rocking because I’m having a memory of Professor Flam telling us many years ago about revisions to his volume of Matisse’s writings.

“Collage,” Motherwell said in 1944, is “the greatest of our [art] discoveries.” This confident assertion appeared in the New York Guggenheim Museum’s press release for Robert Motherwell: Early Collages, which opened in September after its run at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. Walter Robinson’s slightly more informative catalogue essay statement published by McClain Gallery was that Motherwell believed his major contribution to collage was the extensive use of torn edges rather than clean-cut ones, which contributed another layer of the emotional density the artist typically sought in his work.

Collage made up a large part of Motherwell’s output, and he approached the medium through automatism, allowing the unconscious mind to guide his hand, the result being spontaneity and meaningfulness. And because he was so heavily published, Motherwell became rather self-important about his role in transmitting this Surrealist guiding principle to Americans ignorant of European art.

An elevated appreciation of avant-gardism did not diminish his intolerance for those who dared to challenge tradition. Most of you know the story. Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko and other Abstract Expressionists got pissy about assaults to aesthetic standards from Pop art and artists such as Johns and Rauschenberg. How could such garbage be shown? So in 1962 when the Sidney Janis Gallery mounted the “New Realists” show, its seminal Pop Art exhibition, Motherwell, along with Philip Guston, Gottlieb and Rothko resigned from the gallery in protest. In Robert Rosenblum’s recounting, the old guard viewed Lichtenstein as the devil incarnate. “Olympian” was the term Rosenblum used to describe the outraged Motherwell.

I remain fascinated by the art market. How can one not be when only about ten minutes ago a work by Francis Bacon sold at Christies for the unfathomable price of $142 million? Here’s what I learned recently about art commercialism. Research indicated the collage Arches Cover which inspired these notes on Motherwell sold at Christies in 2011. I asked McClain Gallery’s Erin Siudzinski (who is always gracious and helpful when I bother her) if McClain was the 2011 purchaser, or if that purchaser was trying to flip the collage, which is so interesting.

Siudzinski replied:
Thanks for your note and in advance for coverage of the Motherwell exhibition at McClain Gallery. To organize an exhibition of this scope, covering 40 years, requires extensive efforts to find available and suitable works through private collections, auctions, and from dealers and museums. Fortunately we were able to find lenders for this exhibition who were also willing to offer the consigned works for sale.

So, in short, your research is correct, several of the pieces in the exhibition were purchased at some point by auction and of course, by nature of the historic material (and work by an artist who has been deceased for over 20 years) many works have changed several hands over the years.

We have full provenance documents for every piece in the gallery, along with documentation from the catalogue raisonné on hand. The gallery does not personally own Arches Cover; we carefully selected each piece in the exhibition to complement a range of Motherwell's work from the mid-1960s to his death in 1991.
I think I learned from Erin that galleries are quite curatorial when organizing a show of this type, and that collectors are willing to flip works such as this one, for the right price.

1. Direct quotes of Motherwell were taken from Oral history interview with Robert Motherwell, 1971 Nov. 24-1974 May 1, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Interview, by Paul Cummings.



  1. It is so very important to have you, Robert, as our Theo's Therapy friend and aesthetic intellectual, Including this Motherwell feature is much appreciated. We value your every input and certainly your continual following of the art that Houston offers. It was also good to hear from Perry that you made his HBU exhibit

    1. Thanks, but please notice that it was Virginia Billeaud Anderson who wrote the post above.