The issue is passion, whether quiet or wild. For passion is only recognized by the passionate.
- Robert Motherwell
The argument is sometimes made that collage is the greatest invention of modernism. And when it is, the collages of Robert Motherwell are inevitably used as cases in point.
Born in 1915 in Aberdeen, Washington, Motherwell died seventy-six years later in Cape Cod Massachusetts, unquestionably one of the titans of 20th century art. For so emotive and seemingly intuitive an artist, he had a surprisingly academic educational background. He received a BA from Stanford, studied philosophy at Harvard, and took classes at Columbia with the brilliant art historian Meyer Schapiro. As editor of the Documents of Twentieth Century Art Motherwell was a highly influential public intellectual who helped shape American culture's understanding of modernism.
As a young artist and intellectual in New York in the 1940's he found himself at the epicenter of one of the most significant art movements of the 20th century - abstract expressionism. He had already immersed himself in European culture, but it often seemed in those days that Europe had come to New York. Andre Breton, Max Ernst, Roberto Matta and Marcel Duchamp were part of a generation of European artists who came to America to escape the war. Their influence and the surrealism they brought from Paris were crucial in the gestation of modern art in America. Their work had an enormous impact on Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, William Bazioites, Barnett Newman and Roberto Matta, and on Motherwell.
His early collages were encouraged by Peggy Guggenheim at whose gallery Art of This Century he exhibited, and throughout the 1940's Motherwell embraced the technique. It sits at the core of this exhibition, but Motherwell's approach to the medium informs the other works on paper and original lithographs and etchings. The early collages were recently exhibited at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice (2013) and at the Guggenheim Museum New York (2014).
Ultimately, Motherwell's work for me is about emotion. I don't look at Motherwell's work so much as experience it. It's an approach that Motherwell appeared to condone. "But look for yourselves," Motherwell once advised his viewing public. "...If the amounts of black and white are right, they will have condensed into quality, into feeling."
It is an honour for Annandale to bring works of such significance to Australia. The centenary of Motherwell's birth is next year; the three volume catalogue raisonne of his paintings, drawing and collages came out last year; numerous museums worldwide will be paying tribute to his work and legacy. The National Gallery of Australia has an exhibition Robert Motherwell - At Five in the Afternoon of his ‘painterly prints' running until October 6th. The exhibition reveals how Motherwell created inventive collages and an imagery of gestural flourishes, and is drawn entirely from the Gallery's rich collection.
Our exhibition of Robert Motherwell in 2005 was in association with Bernard Jacobson Galleries, London and I am pleased that this collaboration continues. I would like to thank Bernard Jacobson and Robert Delaney for making the current exhibition possible.
- Bill Gregory, Sydney July 2014
But in this stage of the creative process, the strictly aesthetic - which is the sensuous aspect of the world
- ceases to be the chief end in view. The junction of the aesthetic instead becomes that of a medium, a
means for getting at the infinite background of feeling in order to condense it into an object of perception. [Footnote 1]
Written only five years after Robert Motherwell had decided to dedicate himself to painting, his Beyond the Aesthetic of 1946 laid out attitudes which would remain central to his art until his death forty five years later. Though a key figure in the progression of abstract art, in this text he declared that the abstract was a ‘means' not an ‘end', a way of re-arranging and adding ‘emphasis' to ‘patterns' or ‘structures' of reality, within which everyone is differently implicated. He regarded the ‘pictorial structures' created by Cézanne as capturing the artist's particular ‘feeling' and poignantly continued ‘if all his pictorial structures were to disappear from the world, so would a certain feeling'. Between the slight air of fragility this remark contains and the claim he made elsewhere that abstraction ‘vivifies life' much can be said about Motherwell's art. At times involved with violence and grandeur, as apparent are tenderness and candour, an elegance circumscribed by authenticity and strengthened with a sense of its own transience. [Footnote 2]
Motherwell was the youngest of the group of artists who worked in loose confederation during the forties and fifties and who are now known as the Abstract Expressionists. He was born in 1915, grew up in California and was educated in philosophy at Stanford and Havard. Historically aware and immensely articulate he was seen by many as a sort of unofficial spokesman for Abstract Expressionism, and was the first to call the tendency the School of New York. [Footnote 3]
Despite the later use of his rubric in propaganda, it would be wrong to see Motherwell as too directly involved with the chauvinistic claims, made in the wake of World War II, that the capital of world culture had shifted from Paris to New York. He was at heart an internationalist and an individualist, one who saw the progression of modern art as a ‘silent collaboration among a score of studios between New York and Rome and Tokyo'. Of all his peers he was the most dedicated to the art and culture of Europe in general and France in particular. Though identifying the ‘the huge scale, the enormous energy, and the sheer daring of the lower depths of Abstract Expressionism' as specifically and positively American he was ever conscious that modern art had first flowered in late nineteenth century Paris. A student of modernism almost as much as a proponent of it, he saw the promise of the ‘unknown' in the Symbolist poetry of Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Mallermé as a source of constant succour, whilst his painterly hero was undoubtedly Matisse. [Footnote 4]
Motherwell visited Paris in 1935 during a tour of Europe with his father, where he happened upon a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses, which from then on was a constant companion. He spent the academic year 1938-39 studying there, staying with a family in St. Germain-de-Près and holding his first solo exhibition at the Left Bank gallery of fellow Californian Raymond Duncan. He later partly attributed his love of collage, which he called the modern equivalent of still-live, to sitting in a Parisian café and watching its originator Picasso compulsively arranging and re-arranging the objects on his table. [Footnote 5]
These early trips to Europe left Motherwell particularly open to the influx of European culture into the United States. Collections such as the Museum of Modern Art meant there was, as he later put it, ‘more great modern art publicly displayed in New York in 1940 than in the rest of the world put together'. More vital was Motherwell's contact with the émigré artists, in the particular the Surrealists, who throughout the thirties and forties fled a persecuting then a war-torn Europe. [Footnote 6]
Via an introduction made by art historian Meyer Shaprio, Motherwell met many European émigrés before he came in contact with the young Americans who would later become the Abstract Expressionists. He took part in Andre Breton's transpositions of games of object trouvaille from Parisian flea-markets to New York backstreets, played chess with Max Ernst and made prints alongside André Masson and Yves Tanguy at Atelier 17, which the English printmaker William Stanley Hayter had uprooted from near Montparnesse when war broke about. Important above all was Motherwell's contact with the relatively minor Surrealists Roberto Matta and Wolfgang Paalen, who in 1941 gave him contrasting lessons in Surrealist automatism. Automatism, its sense of spontaneity and risk and the promise it seemed to hold for a simultaneous move into the unknown and deeper into oneself would permeate the whole of Motherwell's art.
An immersion in French culture is evident in this exhibition, if somewhat literally, in the collaged packets of Celtique and Gauloises cigarettes, in his inscription across Je T'aime and in the two late collages that stem for a commission to provide an illustration for Georges Sora's three volume Grande Historire de la Revolution Française, published to celebrate the bicentenary year of 1989. More visually, though perhaps with as much certainty, this immersion can be seen in the development Motherwell's collages make from the papier collés with which Picasso and Braque formed synthetic Cubism, and in the manner in which his Opens take Matisse's pictorial elegance and obsession with the motif of a window to a higher degree of abstraction.
Motherwell made his first collages alongside Jackson Pollock for a 1943 show at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery, where their work was displayed alongside the pioneers of the medium including Picasso, Braque, Schwitters and Arp. Pollock did not take to the medium but for Motherwell it was a revelation, and he became arguably the most important exponent of collage in the second half of the twentieth century. It enabled him to quickly change the colour and arrangements of his compositions, whilst its directness confirmed his attitude toward the abstract. As he put it in Beyond the Aesthetic; ‘the sensation of physically operating in the world is very strong in papier collé or collage... One cuts and chooses and shifts and pastes, and sometimes tears off and begins again... without reference to likeness, it possesses feeling because of the decisions in regard to it are ultimately made on the grounds of feeling.' [Footnote 7]
The range of ways in which Motherwell is able to use line to impress, integrate or release shape against a background is crucial to his collages and he felt that the torn (as opposed to the cut) edge was his ‘personal contribution' to the art-form. His sense of colour works in conjunction with his mastery of line. Unlike the involved and complex improvisation of a painter such as his second wife Helen Frankenthaler, colour in Motherwell's collages has a detached quality, the result of a small number of carefully judged decisions. Yet from these he able to create what H.H. Arnason called ‘a special binding light' and to allow this light to take on rich emotional resonances, from the clear confrontation of In White with Blue Hole to the quiet melancholy of the Night Music suite. These latter collages were the last of his open-ended and at times overlapping series, the most important of which were the Elegies and the Opens. [Footnote 8]
A very different meeting of line and colour exists in Motherwell's Opens from that he established in his collages. However the initial impulse behind the Opens could be described as a type of collage, in that Motherwell was struck by the effect of a canvas leaning against a larger one, liked the relationships and drew the outline of the smaller on the larger (though he later changed from the ‘door' shape this left to a ‘window'). Where his Elegies gain their power from an overloaded imagery the Opens are effective because of the way line controls and makes potent an empty expanse. Though he believed that their ‘felt content' was of most important, he was also interested in the wider resonances of the state of being ‘open'. The 1977 Arnason monograph reproduces in full the eight-two entries under ‘open' in the Random House dictionary. For Motherwell this was like a ‘poem... most beautiful, filled with all kinds of associations, all kinds of images'. Though they have an order and calm not so overtly present elsewhere in his work, Motherwell cautioned about seeing too great an opposition between the Opens and his more manifestly automatist works; ‘It is not commonly understood that the linear so-called ‘window' shapes of the Open series are as much a one-shot throw of the dice, in execution, as my more gestural works... the lines in the Opens are not measured or mathematically proportioned but purely intuitional and immediate'. [Footnote 9]
- Sam Cornish
1]: RM, ‘Beyond the Aesthetic', 1946, reprinted in Ashton (ed), The Writings of Robert Motherwell, University of California Press, 2007, pg 54
2]: All quotations in this paragraph from ‘Beyond the Aesthetic', except the last from RM, ‘What Abstract Art Means to Me', Writing..., pg 159
3]: RM, ‘Preface', 1951, Writings..., pp 154-156
4]: RM, ‘A Process of Painting', Writings... pg 216; Barbaralee Diamonstein, ‘An Interview with Robert Motherwell', in H.H. Arnason, Robert Motherwell, (2nd ed), Harry N. Abrams, 1982, pg 228; ‘Beyond the Aesthetic', pg 54
5]: Kenneth Cavander, Robert Motherwell: Storming the Citadel, (film), Phaidon Press, 1992
6]: ‘An Interview with Robert Motherwell', pg 228
7]: ‘Beyond the Aesthetic', pg 55
8]: RM in Arnason, pg 129; Arnason pg 10
9]: RM, ‘Statement on the "Open" Series', 1969, Writings..., pp 243-244; RM in Arnason, pgs 163 & 171