“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.