#41. John Bunker writes on Robert Motherwell at Jacobson

Installation, Robert Motherwell at Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London

Installation, Robert Motherwell at Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London

“Robert Motherwell: Abstract Expressionism” is at Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London, 16th september – 26th November 2016.

It’s a hard task to corral 40 odd years of painting history into a modest if well proportioned gallery space – especially if it’s the career history of an artist like Robert Motherwell. But what is lacking in breadth, here at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery, is more than made up for in focus. One is, of course, also very aware that this gallery is attempting to shine a bright light on Motherwell in the somewhat long shadows cast from across the road by the Royal Academy’s dizzying ‘Abstract Expressionism’ show. Here we have the likes of the portentous Clifford Still dominating the proceedings. It’s funny how so much verbal fire and brimstone can turn so quickly to miserly one-upmanship and tawdry painterly theatrics. But that’s Abstract Expressionism for you – well, a certain kind of it anyway – one that to my mind, Robert Motherwell, with his graphic flair and visceral clarity, has quietly eclipsed – a rogue moon leaving the orbit of a dying star.

"Black with No Way Out", 1983, lithograph, 38.1 x 96.5cm

“Black with No Way Out”, 1983, lithograph, 38.1 x 96.5cm

In the smaller works on paper in the ground floor gallery we see how, over decades, Motherwell has been mining the valleys and hills of an internalised idea of the body. In ‘Black with No Way Out’, 1983, the lithographic process intensifies the weight of a heaving black form as it is sucked into the paper’s surface. Both monstrous and elegant, the crackle between blacks and whites are punctuated with a stinging red that’s been dug into the top edge breaking open the picture plane. The sun’s white hot light can blind to the same degree that it reveals all. A thick black shadow can harbour life as much as it intimates death. A certain kind of beauty and unease reside in Motherwell’s continuous play of opposites. In this relatively small selection of works on paper we are able to see how his refined instinct for that one off graphic hit is then transformed into prints, etchings and collages ranging right across his career.

“Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 130”, 1974-75, acrylic on canvas, 243.8 x 304.8cm

“Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 130”, 1974-75, acrylic on canvas, 243.8 x 304.8cm

And there are other scintillating paradoxes at work on Motherwell’s picture plane too. We are immediately confronted, on descending the stairs into the main gallery, with a sudden change of scale in a later Elegy painting. (Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 130. 1974-5). Here the pictorial and political are wrestled into some kind of pictogram of conscience and consciousness fused. Giant heavy black orbs strung up on black poles demarcate the picture space with an undulating rhythm akin to a kind of breathing – painful breathing – and the dark arcs swelling, spreading like the pooling of blood. A metallic greyish ground evokes a distanced and withheld sense of foreboding, like a sort of silvery moonlit sand. Stacked shards of colour, red, white and blue, break through shadowy straight lines and fragile arcs in the top left corner, twisting out the trembling black architecture from the skin of the painting. This trembling effect seems born of delicate, feathery edges, unsettled by sharp charcoal outlines. What seemed monumental and still suddenly becomes far more vulnerable. But somehow all this detail melts back into the denser blacks only to surge forward toward the picture edge again and again. Those tiny pulses of colour and the vertical pale white band to the right are always stopping the large and heavier repeated forms sinking into rhetorical echoes or flat signage. This famous image is a truly modern totem that speaks as much about the our modern-day wars and conflicts as it might of the blood soaked sand of a bull ring on the dusty yard where the firing squad waits for Lorca to cough up his last.

The Elegy works are a distillation from, not a dilution of, some original powerful historical moment. The so-called ‘Myth Makers’ currently skulking in the great halls of the Royal Academy based their rhetoric on supposed elemental human agonies like doom and tragedy. Motherwell was brave enough to try to find visual equivalents for actual events – real ‘tragedies’ and real ‘agonies’ experienced in the Spanish Civil War, not all lost in the mists of mythological no-time. He attempted to find some kind of visual equivalent for modernity’s psychotic fixation on tyrannies and mass murder. The 20th century saw the ‘march of progress’ melt so quickly into a primordial hell of world war. The ‘Elegies’ are a series of simplified motifs, yes, but refined and sharpened to intensify their assault on the eye. And the assault has precision and clarity – a coolness melded with the weight of something terrible. This image, re-visited by Motherwell throughout his career, never seems to empty out into a ‘signature style’ like so much other theatrical offal from the painterly carcass of art history. Suddenly this particular ‘Elegy’ painting seems to harbour and exude its own unique pressurised space, and I involuntarily hold my breath as I stare into it.

Pierrot's Hat, 1943, watercolour, gouache, pasted papers, pasted glass button and ink on paperboard, 50.2 x 35.9cm

Pierrot’s Hat, 1943, watercolour, gouache, pasted papers, pasted glass button and ink on paperboard, 50.2 x 35.9cm

Collage has it playful side. It is at once, modern and elemental. In his collages Motherwell works with the materiality of the lived-in world. His subtle and brutal configurations of papers and paint gets us a little closer to our world – both its comforts and its agonies. It is interesting to see ‘Pierrot’s Hat’ 1943, a very early experiment with collage, that clearly shows Motherwell’s absorption of the Dadaist sense of play and brutal derangement of form. But also there is a real skill for subtle orchestration of colour and painted elements with stuck-on objects. The disorientating change of speed and mood suggests that collage might hold a particular visual key to the multifarious dynamism of human experience. Motherwell has a special way of taking what he has learned from collage and bringing it back into painting.

“California”, 1959, oil and charcoal on canvas, 177.2 x 227.3cm

“California”, 1959, oil and charcoal on canvas, 177.2 x 227.3cm

In ‘California’, 1959, we might feel that our viewpoints are always being stretched open or unhinged by the dizzying effect of looking down from high altitude, echoing his use of actual maps in early collages. A tattered and torn coastline is summoned up with earthy sun-bleached umbers, then all smashed against bright relentless blues and whites. See how the paint reacts to the rhythm that the charcoal lines are striking out against the canvas. The eye is brought to focus down on that point where the brush slaps the canvas as it snakes across to a coarse orange ridge-like edge on the right. In ‘The Mexican Window’ 1974 all is broken down in to charcoal scrawls and leaning shutters reduced to slaps of grey paint. This image of the window, the archetypical Renaissance device of ‘looking out on to the world’, is inscribed, if not ripped, into a floating cloud of dirty billowing browns- a dust storm held in perpetual stillness. The hard black vertical line at the window’s bottom centre is holding out against the stretcher’s edge and oblivion. That simple charcoal vertical locks our gaze like a gun sight on half suggested spaces, other times and places – a constant point of cool unwavering focus in an otherwise ethereal painterly chimeras.

“The Mexican Window”, 1974, acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 194.3cm x 243.8cm

“The Mexican Window”, 1974, acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 194.3cm x 243.8cm

Motherwell has a reputation for being the clever aesthete who was always too enamoured of the ‘Old World’ of Mediterranean sunshine, azure skies, Gauloises packets – and always with an eye for rare book wrappers too. But I don’t see him as some halfway house or a bridge between old world and new. He was the American who saw the raw potential in the destructive power of collage. Motherwell took the haptic magic of the best of dada/surrealism and the cool hedonism of late Matisse and mixed it up with the high velocity and headstrong lunge for originality that he had absorbed from his New York painter peers of the 1940s. In so doing he found a way of creating great abstract images invoking historical transformations and bodily sensation, at times, almost achieving a perfect union of frenzy and grace.

Installation, Robert Motherwell at Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London

Installation, Robert Motherwell at Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London

Installation, Robert Motherwell at Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London

Installation, Robert Motherwell at Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London

13 comments

  1. I find that Motherwell would be nothing without late Matisse.He is the bridge from Matisse to pure abstraction.I don’t think he hides it at all.Not to diminish his importance but the opposite: he is able to build on the tradition by understanding its essence.

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    1. You’re right on point there, Martin. Motherwell is a bit like the East Coast Diebenkorn in that respect. Both artists made an entire career of raiding the bounty of Matisse and both artists churned out an impressively large body of work that revolved around seemingly endless permutations of the same basic structure.

      Motherwell’s abiding interest in aspects of surrealism make for images that are generally more dynamic than the placid (and occasionally flaccid) Dienbenkorn “Ocean Parks”.

      While its true that Motherwell was not taken seriously by his New York peers (as a banker’s son spared the deprivation of the 1930s, he was seen as a poseur by the Americans, and a dilettante by the Europeans) his career is testament to a sustained engagement with form. An object lesson and visual riposte for contemporary artists who think they “understand” something because they’ve dabbled in it once or twice.

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  2. I think these paintings rather prove my point about Matisse and abstraction.
    The influence of Matisse is obvious, but in the absence of Matisse’s figurative devices the space becomes indefinite and atmospheric.
    The interest is then more graphic than spatial.

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    1. More graphic than spatial, certainly, but “The Mexican Window” is nothing if not a figurative device. Hard for me to see it as an abstract painting; and hard to see the “Elegy” paintings as anything more than symbolic.

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  3. Its great to see John Bunker throw his hat in the ring in support of Bob Motherwell.His lanquage used is fascinating and seems to suggest a certain cruelty in Motherwells critical eye.I could paraphrase,but read the piece again and see how many times he mentions violence being done ,visually or metaphorically.Motherwell was John Hoylands mentor and would call him with very specific advice about Painting ,galleries and life.They were both interested in making thoroughly Modern pictures,something quite different, the more extraordinary for the fact that the Modernists from Europe,Picasso and Matisse were still alive into the1950s.However once Janet Sobel ,Hoffmann or Pollock began throwing pouring or blotting liquid paint on a flat surface ,the genie was out of the bottle and will never go back in .Matisse was essentially too polite to get involved in such nonsense,and sable brushes and oil paint seemed to smack of impressionism & polite figuration.Put that together with the birth of fast drying acrylic,Louis pouring magna ,Aquatec,Liquitex ,Golden etc and the game was changed forever.Recently I read about Painting being a niche activety and in fact the roaring art world has gone on to embrace new technologies,cinema,photogaphy etc,which can free painters from all that reportage,which was never paintings job anyway.Im a great fan of the Elegies and his Dublin picture 1916 with its black and tans,but he lost me with the Open series,with the exception of Platos Cave,an early black and White with grisaille.My point is however much Motherwell wanted to be Matisse,he acknowledged Expressionism,the need for expression and a very hard eye,combined with a razor intelligence.Put that together with marrying Frankenthaler,the fury around Greenbergs judgements,and you have a perfect storm of a creative life.He uses the picture plane like a trampoline,full of shocks and surprises, its so sensitive to feeling.

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  4. A welcome review. I tend to agree regarding the relative merits of the two (Jacobson and RA) shows. The Elegy at Jacobson, for example, is far superior to that at the RA, the latter of which, I felt, does (almost) merge into an emptied out signature. Which is, I suppose, to say that even in a show as large as the RA one, it is remarkable the extent to which our perception of artists’ careers remains mediated by the selector, and how blinkered selectors often are when it comes to ‘Abex’. See for example the appallingly bad and, I think, totally unrepresentative selection of the women artists at the RA: amongst the worst Krasner, Frankenthaler and Mitchell I have seen: though the latter has that good late showing. Motherwell, meanwhile is almost absent from the RA’s reckonings, scattered inconclusively amidst the giants, on the build up to Still’s (rather boring) formalised syntheses.

    No doubt AbEx is a tremendously complicated field to approach, and it is to be welcomed that we are seeing so much of it (some of it very good). What remains totally absent, regrettably, is a much needed deconstruction of some of the ridiculous overblown triumphalism of the narratives. For me, the Motherwell show highlights the kind of careers that have been left out, but does so by claiming him to be a giant amongst giants. (as perhaps we could argue the RA has done, on a much bigger scale, for Still).

    What seems more pressing in a forum like this, however, is a re-examination of the work. Does, for example, Pollock ever live up to the promise of those ’43-’45 works, so bristling with energy and spatial complexity. Did Gorky and DeKooning ever really get to the bottom of their probing explorations of expressive space, and surface (the constant attempt to use Gorky as a bridge to Europe and assert it only to be his 40s work that mattered is so stale now, but restated in the RA). Why was Guston unable to bring the power and relational visual depth of his abstract works (itself taken from – I would argue ­­– his interest in German Expressionism) back into figuration (and why are so many convinced that he did). I really felt that these, rather than the sublimes of Newman, Rothko and Still were what stood out as unanswered questions from the RA.

    Returning to Motherwell, his interest in Matisse, his intellectualism, his independent wealth and (perhaps) his character(?) all seem to have conspired to see him written out of the narrative. What can he add to it? I like John’s point regarding the importance of his attempt to create archetypes to specific historical realities, rather than the over-inflated elementalism of our Newmans and Stills. There is of course the link to European painting, both through his artworks and his remarkable Documents of Modern Art series. I think though that this has been historically overstated. Whilst it may have cut him off from his peers and from the narratives of American art being spun, there is little doubt that Pollock was looking a lot at Picasso, Guston at Beckmann, Gorky of course to Miro, Picasso, and Cezanne, etc etc. And this, of course, to leave out the influence of Mexican painters.

    I would add that his shifting between a range of formats, motifs and modes of working offers a divergent approach to many of the others. This seems to be a fundamentally different notion of what artmaking is about and how it engages with the world. Motherwell seems to have been unsatisfied with a singular artistic project, but rather to have envisioned his practice as a multi-faceted and multi-media exploration of picture making. There is something refreshingly grounded about this. He wasn’t ploughing the furrow of the singular creative myth, but considering the divergent registers that (more and less) abstract pictures could furrow. Perhaps it is this sense of contingent exploration that has left him out of the grand narratives of the movement, but can also serve as a useful historical corrective. If not all of it succeeded, he may perhaps remind us (as makers or historians) of the need to examine what does and what does not ‘work’. His shifting approach to the ‘world-space’ of the picture, its simultaneous capacity for carrying loaded motif and diverse spatialities, seems to cut to the core of what many of the other ‘Abex’ generation artists were working on, though too often has been buried in obfuscating myth from their own and others’ pens.

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  5. A very interesting article, but I think you’re being way, way too kind to Motherwell. I agree with some of what you have to say about the ‘Elegy’ at Jacobson’s; there is a certain kind of brooding backlit atmospherics at work here, but the structure of the painting is as simple and schematic as a flag, and the wedge of bright colours doesn’t do much to alleviate the monotony of stripe, orb, stripe, orb, in flat, undifferentiated black acrylic paint. Motherwell is trying for profundity and a tragic sense of history, but the forms he has chosen simply aren’t up to the job of conveying anything beyond a generalised, gloomy portentousness, to borrow the term you applied to Clifford Still. And you are right, Still’s work- at least, the selection on the walls of the RA- is indeed portentous, not to mention crude, simplistic, and frequently ludicrous, but through some weird alchemy in the mixing of these unpromising ingredients, he does seem, very occasionally, to arrive at a sort of brute conviction that carries the viewer along with him; Motherwell, on the other hand, feels hemmed in by the very suavity and facility that so many people seem keen to praise him for. The long ‘Elegy’ at the RA suffers from the same shortcomings as the one at Jacobson’s, in that it is really a very straightforward, schematic pictorial idea, which, in its scaling up from painted sketch to wall-sized canvas, has acquired all sorts of flicks, flourishes, pentimenti, and little swatches of atmospheric grey where white has been put down over wet black- all of which feels like just so much window-dressing. A couple of rooms away at the RA hangs Pollock’s ‘Mural’ in all its crude magnificence; and the comparison does Motherwell no favours. In the Pollock, painterly gesture is the engine that drives the entire painting, sending the forms rippling across the canvas from left to right and back again; in the Motherwell, it has been reduced to the task of tarting up a composition that had been almost entirely realized before the painting was begun. All that the brush does here, once the big black and ochre forms have been blocked in, is supply what Reinhardt called the ‘delirium trimmings’.

    I don’t see this merely applying to the small group of his paintings currently on display on either side of Piccadilly; I would level the same criticisms at pretty much his entire output, certainly once he moved beyond the promising richness of his paint/collage works of the 1940s, where he put into practice lessons learned from Picasso and Matisse (‘View from a High Tower’ of 1944 is a particularly good example) and began painting ‘Motherwells’. John, you single out his graphic work for particular praise, and I’d go some way to agreeing with you here also: I like your description, ‘an internalised idea of the body’ and looking at “Black with No Way Out’ I can find it there. The point is, however, that printmaking doesn’t carry with it the same weight of expectations as painting: we understand, and accept, that painters turn to it in order to redeploy existing imagery at what is almost always a far more modest scale, with limited or no colour, in a far flatter space. Lithography and etching, then, were always going to bring out the best of Motherwell: what looks overblown, oversimplified and (in the sense of holding the viewer’s interest beyond the initial impact) over too soon in a twelve-foot-long painting can deliver a considerable graphic punch, in the much smaller arena of a sheet of paper. A print can isolate a single gesture, and not feel starved of content. That’s why ‘Black with No Way Out’ works, and paintings such as ‘California’ and ‘Mexican Window’, both in the Jacobson show, don’t: we demand- well, at least, I do- that a painting be more than simply a literal surface with a mark deposited on it, but the gestures in the paintings, in paint and charcoal, are too declarative, too much themselves, to be able to collaborate with anything else and build pictorial space. As Robin points out, the form in ‘Mexican Window’ is a graphic device, pure and simple; it has no relationship with the brushy yellow ground around it. And the best that Motherwell can manage in ‘California’ is to lay in big, bland areas of ochre and blue, which don’t feel like they activate the snaking light blue form, but simply ‘showcase’ it. The effect of all this is a kind of ghastly ‘good taste’: and I find it again and again in his work, regardless of which tragic historical event he is looking to evoke. The long RA ‘Elegy’ felt so pat, so tidy beneath its camouflage of painterly inflections, that it seemed to be morphing into a poster of itself as I was looking at it. Ironically, bearing in mind what the hanging orb forms in these paintings are understood to allude to, I have to conclude that Motherwell, when considered in the company of the real big beasts of the show- Pollock, and the criminally under-represented Hofmann- simply doesn’t have the cojones.

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  6. I think it’s probably right to see Motherwell as more graphic than spatial, although it shouldn’t be taken too far, and is not grounds for dismissal. Rather than graphic, I see him as a maker of images. Like David Smith what matters is the image-quality – its immediacy, coherence, the elegance & power of its admixture of an abstract language and wider resonance (and as John points out a collision of meaningless of Dada with something much more controlled). It matters – as John describes so well in his description of the Elegy – that the graphic hit is made into something living, breathing, is given its own physical reality (although Motherwell is canny enough not to get laboriously bogged down in this).

    I am generally skeptical about linking the Elegies back to the specific historical moment, as if by looking at their abstract shapes we are given access to the Spanish Civil war. If Motherwell needed this to make them then that is fine, but they must – and they do – take on something wider. But it just occurred to me that many commemorative things – say the form of a head-stone – do no narrate the thing that they commemorate but instead are made so that when the connection is made – through placement, or naming – their form feels appropriate, in some way resonates with the designated subject. I think the Elegies (though obviously varying in success) are suitably somber, declarative, transitory and forcefully and enigmatically present. Though for me, I am only interested in quite a remote way in what precisely they try to represent (Motherwell’s distanced horror at the war, rather than the war itself) – I respond to them much less specifically, as ambiguous and powerful images.

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    1. “what matters is the image-quality – its immediacy, coherence, the elegance & power of its admixture of an abstract language and wider resonance”

      If you take “abstract” out of this sentence, I agree with it, because that makes Smith and Motherwell “symbolic” artists, as I previously suggested about the “Elegies”. And if they are symbolic, they are not abstract.

      I have no idea what you mean by an “abstract language”, which to me is a contradiction in terms.

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      1. By abstract language I simply mean the building of a painting through shapes (marks, forms, structures) which have no direct or no obvious relationship with things in the world. Obviously it’s problematic – could one say when you get deep down lots of – all!? – figurative styles are built of an abstract language. But I think the point still stands. Whether it is blocks or dashes.

        Isn’t the later Hofmann one of the Abstract Expressionists who is most self-conscious and programmatic in his use of already formulated abstract languages? The flurry of marks of German Expressionism versus (synthesizing with) blocks of geometric abstraction; or elsewhere the Expressionist mark let loose in the pure space of Mondrian….

        And that opposition of languages could even be quite readily interpreted symbolically – man (or woman) in or against Nature; the Real as a synthesis of man in nature. I think Hofmann follows Wiliam Wollinger in this respect? I don’t think that looking at in this way in anyway exhausts Hofmann or precludes the response to them you describe in your article on the RA (in the same way that considering all the diverse meanings of Tinterreto doesn’t mean they cannot be considered in some sense ‘abstractly’).

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  7. I don’t mean to start trouble here, but language DOES have a “direct and obvious relationship with things in the world” – as shown by the fact that we are able to talk about the world, apparently without a great deal of effort. This is analytically true of language, but not of painting.

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