Robert Motherwell From the Collection: 1941-1990
The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
Some of the worlds most significant artists didnt start out as artists at all. Henri Matisse was a law clerk, Vito Acconci a poet. Uruguayan Alejandro Cesarco was an economist. Robert Motherwell, the articulate spokesman of Abstract Expressionism, earned degrees in philosophy and literature. After college he went to Paris for an extended stay and it was there that he began to paint. In 1940, Columbia University accepted Motherwell into the art history doctoral program on a trial basis. In New York, he befriended Surrealists Max Ernst, Andr Masson, Roberto Matta Echaurren and Yves Tanguy. Motherwells lack of formal training and affinity for abstraction dovetailed with the Surrealist notion of psychic automatism, a process that used stream of consciousness to encourage dreamlike creations and strange juxtapositions. This process became the cornerstone of Motherwells arta body of work often sparked by happy accidents.
In From the Collection: 19411990, the Modern put its entire Motherwell inventory on view for the first timea collection of fifty works second only to that of The Museum of Modern Art in quantity. While The Moderns wall texts explained the artists themes well, the layout scattered related works, making the overall issue of contextualization difficult. Moreover, Motherwell pursued some series for several decades while others, like a 1981 series based on writings by James Joyce, lasted only briefly. Despite this, the layout provided an opportunity to examine the overall interconnectedness in Motherwells oeuvre.
Robert Motherwell, Je taime with Gauloise Blue, 1976
Acrylic, collage and charcoal on canvas
36 x 24 inches
The first room, with its many intimately scaled works, made an astonishingly big impact. One self-titled piece in particulara collage with Je taime written across it in black charcoaldemanded immediate attention. Its palette of white, black, blue and ochre recurs frequently throughout the exhibit. The words, a flattened carton of Gauloises, even the particular shade of blue all pay homage to the artists time in France. Yet the work stands out as the only representative of the Je taime series, begun in the mid-1950s. The statement I love you rings positive, like the famous Yes that made John Lennon fall in love with Yoko Ono. This unabashed sentiment resounds. Nowhere else in the exhibition are there such obvious statements.
Motherwells most famous series, Elegies to the Spanish Republic, is an ominous set of abstractions based on the Spanish Civil War. Begun in 1948, he reworked this series until his death in 1991. The works capture the essence of conflict in both vast canvases and small works on paper. The Elegies are recognizable by certain formsjet-black ovoids pressed shoulder to shoulder with vertical strokes evoking cell bars, and set off by creamy white backgrounds. Though other colors may appear, the force of these works lies in the contrast between black form and white background.
The duality in Motherwells work is hypnotic. In his travels to Mexico and Spain, he was struck by both cultures simultaneous obsession with death and extreme passion for life. After a 1958 trip to Spain, Motherwell made a number of works, giving them Spanish titles. Iberia No. 18a mere six-by-eight-inch workfeels immense. Black spreads across the canvas until only a bit of white is left uneaten, its edges dissolved in what is called flying white in Sumi brushwork.
Robert Motherwell, Iberia #18, 1958
Oil on linen mounted on a paperboard support
5 1/8 x 7 1/8 inches
In the next room, another such studyOpen No. 150 in Black and Cream (Rothko Elegy)is physically huge. In it, an off-centered white rectangle cleanly cuts a solid black canvas. Here, contrast feels artificial; Motherwell just isnt a hard-edged artist. In this respect, his little Iberia painting feels so much grander. Its saturated black creeps as if still in the process of snuffing out the underlying white.
Motherwells collagesa worthy subject of study in themselvesreflect the influences of Matisse (form and color) and Picasso (process and materials). The works are forged from articles of pleasureFrench perfume and soap labels, Swiss chocolates, sheet music and packing material from booksellers. These works are warm and personal, emitting a joie de vivre. Motherwell is fond of a particular tilt to the left in his balanced compositions; torn paper in blocky, trapezoidal shapes swim in the center. While the number and quality of collage works in the Moderns collection is impressive, I didnt find any that rival others I have seen in terms of color. The McNay Art Museums The Redness of Red and Suchard on Orange #5, for instance, are both capable of taking your breath away.
The exhibition was an important event for those who admire Motherwell, but it isnt complete without another look at his Abstract Expressionist peers also in the Moderns permanent collection. Jackson Pollocks fluidity, Franz Klines stark contrasts, David Smiths Sumi ink drawings and Clyfford Stills forms all resonate with shared influence.