‘Nothing as drastic an innovation as abstract art could have come into existence save as a consequence of a most profound, relentless, unquenchable need. The need is for felt experience – intense, immediate, direct, subtle, unified, warm, vivid, rhythmic.’ Robert Motherwell, ‘What Abstract Art Means to Me’.
After the cramped hang and the waves of people flooding the RA show, this exhibition is an oasis. It includes a taste of all the facets of Motherwell’s work, from the earliest collage Pierrot’s Hat, 1943 and drawing Untitled 1944, it encompasses large canvasses and small works on paper up to his last collage Blue Guitar, 1991; it is a spacious hang in quiet place, filled with vibrant power.
Motherwell was the youngest of the so-called Abstract Expressionists and in some ways the outsider; and indeed still is – he was not honoured with a room of his own at the current RA survey, his name doesn’t appear on the publicity, and ‘Plato’s Cave’ was squashed into a corner, an error not mitigated by the fact that the massive ‘Elegy For The Spanish Republic No 126’ was given a whole wall.
Steeped in European sensibilities, philosophy and surrealism, Symbolist literature and psychoanalysis, he didn’t pursue a signature style, the trait so common in his contemporaries (and possibly the bane of their lives), and so is perhaps a little more tricky for historians and curators to place. He came at abstraction without the prolonged testing of figuration that all the rest of the boys were grounded in and for the most part managed to move on from (though DeKooning deliberately danced with it, and to a large extent Pollock never shook it off). He was European at heart, rooted in Matisse, Picasso and Miro as well as history painting such as Delacroix, on whose Journals he wrote his dissertation in Paris, Grenoble and Oxford. He often neglected this in order to paint. He was forever testing the ground and pushing his work and was an artist of versatility and breadth. He survived most of his contemporaries, though was by no means a hermit.
To be sure, Motherwell worked in series, and the Elegies, of which he made around two hundred (three variations of which are in this show), are probably the most iconic images of his oeuvre; but these punctuated his life along with the Opens and the big black Iberia paintings, as well as the hundreds of works on paper, including collages (where he wore his European influences on his sleeve; Gauloises packets, references to Eluard and Mallarme), series of paintings and drawings, and suites of prints (often connected with literature). And he had a particular palette of colours that were distinctive in their combinations; black and white, yellow ochre and soft blue, burnt umber and grey; however, these were often injected with a shot of red, orange or yellow and were far from the reputation for the ‘sombre palette and oppressive motifs’ (David Anfam in the RA’s Ab-Ex Gallery Guide 2016) that he is still saddled with.
The first room at Bernard Jacobson concentrates on smaller works on paper, showcasing the artist’s various printmaking skills in lithograph, etching and screen printing. Here is the characteristic predominance of black, the prime example being Black With No Way Out, 1983, a long format lithograph, which may be small in size but is huge in scale, its bulky black mass splattering out across the white ground and tinged with red at the top edge. It is by no means sombre. Elsewhere in the room the black is matched by red in Mexican Night II, 1984, and the uncharacteristic use of green with red in the Basque Suite, 1971. As Mattisse said, ‘Black is a force’, and Motherwell knew how to harness it to the full.
There is also early gouache and ink piece, Untitled from 1944, when he was still newly steeped in the surrealist practice of automatism, an approach learned from his close friendship with Matta with whom he spent time in Mexico in 1941 and of whom he said “In three months ….Matta gave me a ten-year education in Surrealism” – this was followed by time in Mexico City with Wolfgang Paalen, from whom “I got my postgraduate education in Surrealism, so to speak.” This baptism in surrealism alongside the soaking up of Mexican culture and colour (especially ochres and black) and a Mexican wife, laid the foundations for his life as an artist and was a constant thread, as seen in the exhibition. For example Mexican Window, 1974, and Mexican Night II, 1984, are a direct reference, but also the early gouache and ink drawing Untitled, 1944, owes a lot to Matta in its architectural space and biomorphic shapes in wet paint and ink that have been left to bleed and merge. This is one of a possible series in the same colours from that year including The Spanish Flying Machine and another Untitled.
Greeting us at the door is a small Elegy on canvas, No 163, from 1979-82, which holds its scale at this reduced size. And for me is a much more powerful painting than its larger and earlier comrade downstairs. It is made of acrylic and conte crayon, the paint applied as a pink/orange overlay on the left hand side of the canvas, with the Elegy bars and oval roughly painted in black, then worked into with conte to give a contrasting surface; the conte marks fly off the main black to give a similar effect as dripped or splashed paint and emphasise the immediacy of the image and the mark making…. Except this was worked on in the space of two years, so some time passed between the initial work and the finishing touches. It seems that the final application was the pink over the black and the orange on the left.
The larger Elegy downstairs, No 130, 1974-5, though it dwarfs the former, is less powerful, less visceral and seems rather flat and tidy, holding its edges, and although the grey and blue-tinged vertical strips are worked, they still appear flat, as do the black bars and ovals….for me a disappointment, given the life of the smaller one and the impact of some others in the series. Even the flashes of colour in the top left, harking back to Elegy 34, 1953-4, do not save it. And it is not as if Motherwell didn’t know how to apply the acrylic in a more energised way. (see below)
In contrast, opposite it in the space, A View No 1. 1958, is a quietly energetic work in oil which creeps up on you, belying its apparent simplicity, and is loosely and freely painted. Slightly off centre to the left of the painting is a broken, linear square of roughly painted umber, rotated 45’ on a dirtied creamy off-white ground. A scumbled area of light blue/grey lies to the left beneath the shape, and there are some large scribbled marks in umber which are also ‘underneath’ the square, some of which are framed by it, but also escape free from its edges. The bottom of the canvas is edged with the same umber, while a wide vertical band of black holds the right hand edge. This band of black appears to be made up of two distinct qualities of the same colour, but the right hand one is dark umber and the left one is black. Was the black added last to make the rotated square appear less central? All of the various applications of the umber have different qualities, from thick and dense to thin and watery, adding to the felt experience of the painting. It is so much more alive than Elegy No 130. Motherwell said of this painting that “this work is probably my most purely Abstract Expressionist work of the period.” For me this painting is the star of the show.
Completely different, but a close second is The Studio, 1987, an abundant painting of strong almost primary colours from thirty years later, and near the end of his life. It has echoes not only of Matisse and Picasso but also Miro. It hangs on the wall at the foot of the stairs, below the quirky, expansive space that towers up to the rooflights two stories up where the floors have been cut away. It is one of the most vibrant paintings he made, perhaps sitting alongside Je T’aime No 4, 1955-7. In fact it shares some of the characteristics of that painting in the colours and the combination of the two round shapes in the off-centre triangle…but ‘The Studio’ is much more punchy. This harks back to the energy and dynamism of his earlier automatism and ‘devil may care’ approach. The red pulls us back to Matisse’s Red Studio and the subject to Picasso’s The Studio – but the amorphous black shapes on the left hand side are redolent of Miro’s paintings and the old pull of surrealism. The black ovals in the blue triangle are resonant of the Elegies, as are the black verticals and horizontal below, suggesting a breaking-up and re-using of familiar forms in a new way. The vibrant red is overlayed with yellow and ochre, which also form the right hand slope of the blue triangle, which has been loosely painted so that the red shows through. The vertical passage of densely brushed orange defines the slope of the left hand side of the triangle. In typical Miro fashion, the black shapes on the left are edged with blue to make an optical punctuation. The whole thing is then finished off with charcoal lines contrasting with the roughly painted shapes and referring back to Picasso’s cubism.
Opposite this, at the other end of the gallery, also with a wall to itself, is Mexican Window, 1974, one of the Open series. The large expanse of yellow ground is animated by vigorous, multidirectional brushstrokes of ochre, punctuated by the charcoal rectangle in the top half. In the playfulness of ambiguity, the suggested window becomes literally representational with the right hand shutter, loosely painted in black bars, thrown open against the wall; the vertical triangle on the left hand side suggests some depth of wall….but what strikes me is the way that it is a reversed version of Matisse’s Open Window, 1914, where the view through the window is black; here the strong yellow suggests a lit interior.
Interspersed amongst the large canvases are three small works in black, including untitled (Elegy), 1960, in tempera on board, which holds its own beside the larger version; on the other side of this is Frontier, oil on board from 1958. Two Figures, oil on board also from 1958, the least successful of this little series, is sandwiched between View No1 and California, the latter being another large painting on canvas from 1959. This is a loosely painted piece in his signature ochre and blue which could be a detail of a larger painting, with the large areas of colour expanding off the rectangle top and bottom; it also echoes the forms of the Wall Painting series from the early 50s, or the Elegies, but with the oval hollowed out into a blue line. It has a sprung tension set up by the bowed ochre shape and the cranked blue line that is held by the vertical charcoal line and the orange one to the right that brings it alive.
Another example of the breadth of Motherwell’s work is Beside the Sea No 3, oil on laminated rag paper, from a series made in1962. The series had a simple format, which gave him immense freedom to explore spontaneous mark making inspired by the sprays of water dashing over the sea wall at his studio/house in Provincetown. It was his first intensive use of oil on paper, using buckets of thinned oil paint, with the oil spreading and creating a halo effect around the colours. He had to use laminated rag paper because such was the force with which the mark was made, ‘at arms stretch, with brushes fixed on yard long handles’, that other paper he tried split open. A horizontal stroke was made about a third of the way up the paper, the ‘spray’ was then administered and another horizontal band of thinner blue was added below the original band. Again he plays with the ambiguity of abstraction/representation with the blue band possibly representing the sea, but then the ‘splash’ is in the darker colour. He made about forty works in this series and it paved the way for the possibilities of paint on paper that continued through his life, particularly with the Lyric Suite in 1965 and the Samurai series in 1974.
To complete the selection of his works, there is the small Grey Open from 1980, acrylic with charcoal lines on canvas board. In fact this succinct but wide ranging exhibition gives us a good feel of the man who might himself be described as intense, immediate, direct, subtle, unified, warm, vivid, and rhythmic… a giant of a man who made a substantial contribution to abstract painting in particular and painting in general, and deserves a much higher profile than he has been afforded so far. He was a man whose paintings lived and breathed as he did, and as Norbert Lynton said of him, ‘he wanted an art fully related to life as lived’.
Joyce wrote in Ulysses: “The supreme question of the work of art is; out of how deep a life does it spring?” – very deep indeed in Motherwell’s case; a major retrospective is long overdue here… was the last one really 1978 at the RA? What a shame we missed out on the 1997 show from Barcelona and Madrid curated by Dore Ashton, but apparently offers were turned down.
This exhibition is on at Bernard Jacobson until 26 November; don’t miss it, especially if you are going to the RA to see the ‘big boys’ play.