Robert Motherwell: Black

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ROBERT MOTHERWELL: BLACK


Open No. 161: In Beige with Black, 1970 Acrylic on canvas 96 x 106 1/4 inches


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Open No. 59: In Orange and Blue Panel, 1967/1969 Acrylic on canvas 68 3/4 x 98 3/4 inches


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Untitled, 1963/1968 Acrylic and chalk on canvas 42 x 40 inches


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[Untitled (Black Vertical Stroke on White)], ca. 1964 Acrylic on canvas 45 x 35 inches


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In Beige, Ultramarine, and Green, 1968/after 1983 Acrylic and pasted papers on paper 29 3/4 x 21 1/2 inches


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[Brushy Open on Buff Ground], ca. 1983 Acrylic on paper 18 x 26 inches


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Open Study in Charcoal on Grey, #3, 1974 Acrylic and charcoal on canvasboard 18 x 30 inches


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[Untitled (Black, Ochre)], ca.1964 Oil on canvasboard 9 x 12 inches


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The Blackness of Black, 1977 Acrylic on canvas 12 x 9 inches


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Summertime in Italy, 1966 Lithograph on Rives BFK paper 22 5/8 x 17 inches


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Hommage Ă Picasso: Window, 1973 Lithograph on Arches Cover mould-made paper 30 1/2 x 22 1/4 inches


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For Meyer Schapiro: Tallith for Meyer Schapiro, 1974 Lift-ground etching and aquatint on Arches Cover paper 41 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches


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Spanish Elegy I, 1975 Lithograph on brown HMP handmade paper 17 1/2 x 30 1/2 inches


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Altamira Elegy, 1980 Lithograph on buff Arches Cover paper 17 7/8 x 22 inches


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Dance III, 1978 Lift-ground etching and aquatint on J.B. Green paper 27 1/4 x 30 1/2 inches


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Blackened Sun, 1984 Lift-ground etching and aquatint on German Etching paper 40 3/4 x 29 1/4 inches


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Los Angeles Sun (State II), 1980 Lift-ground etching and aquatint on J.B. Green paper 33 x 27 1/4 inches


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Signs on White, 1981 Lift-ground etching and aquatint on German Etching paper 27 1/2 x 33 7/8 inches


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Bloomsday, 1982 Aquatint, lift-ground etching and aquatint on German Etching paper 29 1/2 x 35 inches


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Untitled, 1991 Etching on buff Fabiano paper 26 1/2 x 30 3/8 inches


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[Open (Black Brush Strokes)], 1973 Acrylic and screenprint on paper 40 1/4 x 28 3/8 inches


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[Untitled (Samurai)], 1973 Acrylic on paper 35 1/2 x 18 1/4 inches


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Gesture Paper Painting No. 3, 1975 Acrylic on paper 20 x 22 1/2 inches


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Drunk with Turpentine, 1979 Oil on paper 23 x 29 inches


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Drunk with Turpentine, 1979 Acrylic on paper 23 x 29 inches


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Drunk with Turpentine, 1979 Oil on paper 23 x 29 inches


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Untitled 1974, 1974 Untitled 1974, 1974 Monotype; black acrylic on paper with touches of color Monotype; black acrylic on paper 41 1/4 x 29 1/2 inches 35 1/4 x 23 1/4 inches


Untitled 1974, 1974 Monotype; bistre and yellow etching ink with black acrylic on Arches paper 40 1/4 x 25 3/4 inches

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The color black haunts Robert Motherwell’s work from his early abstract drawings in 1941 to his last paintings in 1991. Though he understood that, scientifically, black was the “absence of all color,” Motherwell employed black as a color in its own right: as a protagonist of his paintings, prints, drawings, and collages.1 Throughout his career Motherwell deliberately restricted himself to a palette of black and white, sometimes complemented by blue, ochre yellow, red, and green. Although a near-continuous component of the artist’s work, black is a protean element that held different implications for Motherwell throughout his life and practice. In his Elegies to the Spanish Republic series, heavy black abstract forms express personal mourning as well as collective lament over political tragedy. However, in his Open paintings, Motherwell applied black in expansive fields of color or used black lines to delineate stable geometric forms that convey serenity and prompt contemplation. In other works, Motherwell applied thinned black paint in energetic, deliberately unpremeditated gestures: a technique informed as much by the improvisatory practices of Japanese Zen Buddhist painting as by the spontaneity of Abstract Expressionist Action Painting. Motherwell was unique among his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries in his deep understanding of the evocative power of color and of abstraction more broadly. An intellectual and a skilled writer, Motherwell grounded his artistic practice in his readings in art, philosophy, and literature. He maintained that abstract art held a poetic symbolism with roots in the real world. In other words, he believed that the elements of abstraction—line, shape, texture, and, most of all, color—could emulate the language of poetry, evoking sensations and sentiments beyond the merely formal. Motherwell’s Elegies to the Spanish Republic feature a strong opposition of black and white representing the struggle between life and death.2 The many works in the series are variations on an extremely generative composition; over a white background vertical black rectangles alternate with black ovals rendered in loose gestural brushstrokes. The interplay of heavy black ovals and bars creates a lugubrious visual rhythm suggestive of the clanging of a funereal bell. Motherwell developed the basic components of this composition in the early 1940s through automatism, drawing while attempting to suppress any conscious intention.3 Afterwards, however, Motherwell began to associate these somber forms with the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, which ended in tragedy with the defeat of the Spanish Republican forces by Fascist dictator Francisco Franco. This visual affinity prompted Motherwell to title the series the Elegies to the Spanish Republic. For years Motherwell associated disparate global incidents of oppression and suffering with the particular events of the Spanish Civil War. In 1937, after his Stanford University graduation, Motherwell heard the French intellectual and Spanish Republican supporter André Malraux speak in San Francisco about the Spanish Civil War and was deeply affected.4 The events of the war, as well as its artistic reverberations—Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, for example—continued to hold great meaning for the artist throughout his life, representing a “terrible death… that should not be forgot.”5 Motherwell

Robert Motherwell, interview by Guy Scarpatta, “Les 9 Ateliers de Robert Motherwell,” Art Press International (July 1977), revised 1979 and excerpted in Stephanie Terenzio, Motherwell & Black (Storrs, CT: William Benton Museum of Art, 1980), 81. 2 Describing the Elegies to the Spanish Republic in 1962, Motherwell explained, "black is death, anxiety; white is life, éclat." Robert Motherwell, "A Conversation at Lunch," in The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, ed. Stephanie Terenzio (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 137. 3 H.H. Arnason, Robert Motherwell (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1982), 26. 1

Jack Flam, Motherwell (New York: Rizzoli, 1991), 12. Robert Motherwell, “A Conversation at Lunch,” in An Exhibition of the Work of Robert Motherwell (Northampton, MA: Smith College, 1963), excerpted in Terenzio, Robert Motherwell & Black, 127. 4 5


was also fascinated with the centrality of black to Spanish culture and art, particularly the paintings of Francisco de Goya and Diego Velázquez and the poetry of Federico García Lorca. Motherwell understood black to signify a particularly Spanish ethos.6 However, this sense of a uniquely Spanish black was linked in Motherwell’s mind with a broader notion of Spanish culture that encompassed Mexico. In May of 1941, after terminating his Art History studies at Columbia University, Motherwell traveled to Mexico with his friend, the young Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta. During this trip, which was instrumental in Motherwell’s artistic development, he first began to paint seriously and to make abstract drawings.7 8 Motherwell was struck by the pervasiveness of death in Mexican culture and everyday life. Years later the artist would remember the sight of “black-edged death notices and death announcements… contrasted with bright sunlight, white-garbed peasants, blue skies, orange trees.”9 These colors seeped into Motherwell’s imagination and his palette, dominating his work for decades to come. Once Motherwell discovered his characteristic colors and developed the archetypal image of the Elegies, he adapted these compositional elements repeatedly, producing permutations in sizes from intimate to monumental, while allowing himself as much freedom as possible within the predetermined structure of the composition. In the lithograph Altamira Elegy, 1979–80, the ovals have morphed into irregular, organic elements that are interspersed with thin vertical lines rather than bars. The lumpy black forms and slender limbs seem on the verge of coalescing into an abstracted animal. The title of this work refers to the Altamira cave in Spain, the site of prehistoric drawings of bison, horses, and long-horned bulls made, significantly, with black charcoal. Motherwell visited the Altamira cave on his first trip to Spain in 1958.10 Despite the range and variety of the Elegies, the works almost all feature a contrast of black forms over a white background, where black is an allusion to death that simultaneously echoes a larger, almost universal sense of tragedy. Though the Elegies were defined by the struggle for supremacy between white and black, in several other works, black is dominant. In Untitled (Black, Ochre), 1964, a field of black paint drops from the top of the composition downward like a curtain, covering most of the canvas. The black paint extends in places to meet a line of black stretching along the bottom edge of the work. This blackness seems to obscure or consume an underlying composition hinted at by visible strokes of white and ochre paint. In this work Motherwell returned to the motifs of his Iberia series, begun in 1958, in which a field of black with irregular edges covers over much of the surface, enveloping underlying forms in ochre and white. After witnessing a bullfight in Spain in 1958, Motherwell began the first of these blacked-out canvases. The energetic, even violent, black brushstrokes channel the furious energy of a black bull and the ochre suggests the sand of the bull pit. Writing about paintings in the Iberia series, Motherwell said: “those coal black, ochre pictures have a bull in them, but you cannot really see the bull. They are an equivalence of the ferocity of the whole encounter.”11

Jack Flam, “Introduction: Robert Motherwell at Work,” in Jack Flam, Katy Rogers, and Tim Clifford, Robert Motherwell Paintings and Collages: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991, Volume 1 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012), 19-20. 7 Robert Motherwell, interview by Paul Cummings, November 24, 1971-May 1, 1974, Archives of American Art (website), Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., accessed April 10, 2018, https://www.aaa. si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-robert-motherwell13286#transcript. 8 Robert S. Mattison, Robert Motherwell: The Formative Years (Ann Arbor and London: UMI Research Press, 1987), 26. 6

Robert Motherwell, interview by Bryan Robertson in The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, 145. 10 Jack Flam, “Paintings 1958-1967: Two Figures,” in Flam, Rogers, and Clifford. Robert Motherwell Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 1, 93-95. 11 Robert Motherwell in Marcelin Pleynet, Robert Motherwell (Paris: Daniel Papierski, 1989), 91. 9

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The monochrome canvases of Motherwell’s Opens, by contrast, result not from a battle between formal elements, but rather a resolution. In Open No. 161: In Beige with Black, 1970, the canvas is painted beige apart from a small black rectangle at the right side of the top edge. This small rectangle appears almost like a window cut into a wall of beige stucco. The way the rectangle touches the top edge of the canvas makes the composition seem to open out beyond the frame. The Opens, like the Elegies, originated through free-association. One day in the 1960s Motherwell leaned a small canvas, facing backwards, against the front of a larger, unfinished canvas painted all over in an ochre yellow. Pleased with the proportion of the smaller canvas to the large, Motherwell outlined the shape of the smaller canvas with a piece of charcoal. The resulting painting resembled a monochrome canvas with a small rectangular opening cut into the bottom edge. This opening, however, was not filled with imagery, but left void.12 In Japanese Zen practice a void is not considered empty, but rather filled with potentiality.13 Though not a practitioner of Zen meditation, Motherwell was intellectually influenced by Zen concepts, particularly the veneration of the void. In the Opens, Motherwell created a compositional framework through the relationship of minimal marks on the paper or canvas to the empty space, or monochrome surface. In Motherwell’s words, the Opens were “built on a conception analogous to the Oriental conception of the absolute void: that you start with empty space, and that the subject is that which animates the great space, the void.”14 Furthermore, he noted, “the amazing discovery is that it takes relatively little to animate the absolute void.”15 One of the principles of Zen painting to which Motherwell adhered in the Opens is the simplification of artistic expression to essential forms without reducing the power and impact of that expression.16 In the 1960s and 1970s, a period in which Minimalist artists espoused reductionist principles in art, Motherwell may have seen an engagement with Zen as a way to participate in such conversations without sacrificing metaphor and allusion and a spontaneity of conception—all important components of his practice. The reductionist aesthetics of Zen painting encourage eliminating extraneous elements of a composition that could distract from the main thrust of the visual argument.17 In Zen painting this almost always meant restricting color to black and white.18 The concise medium of black ink on white paper allowed Zen practitioners to channel their focus and energy into spontaneous expression that reflected a sense of emptiness, or receptiveness to the fluctuating nature of the surrounding world.19 In many ways, the Abstract Expressionist emphasis on the spontaneous gesture mirrors these tenets. Motherwell’s engagement with Zen ideas can be seen in such works as Untitled (Samurai), 1973, in which thin black paint was flicked and rapidly applied to a sheet of paper with controlled gestures. Despite the cerebral nature of Motherwell’s writings, even about his own work, this spontaneous, intuitive gesture was central to his practice. He wrote that an artist learns from Japanese calligraphy to “let the hand take over.”20

Robert S. Mattison, “Robert Motherwell’s Opens in Context,” in Robert Motherwell Open (London: 21 Publishing, 2009), 9. 13 Robert Hobbs, “Motherwell’s Opens: Heidegger, Mallarmé, and Zen,” in Robert Motherwell Open, 58. 14 Robert Motherwell in Flam, Motherwell, 1991, 16. 15 ibid. 16 Helmut Brinker, Zen in the Art of Painting, trans. George Campbell (London and New York: Arkana, 1987), 149. 17 ibid. 18 ibid. 12

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ibid. Robert Motherwell in Flam, Motherwell, 1991, 16.


In his Drunk with Turpentine works, made from 1979 to 1980, Motherwell did just that. The artist described these works, mostly paintings on paper, as an “outpouring,” in which he attempted to resist “critical intervention or editing,” simply allowing his hand to move freely.21 Though eventually the series included works in other media, the majority of the paintings were executed in thinned black oil paint on white paper.22 This combination results in a pale yellow ring around the black forms where, over time, the oil seeps out of the paint. Motherwell’s almost exclusive use of black oil paint on paper in the Drunk with Turpentine works was informed, at least partly, by the aesthetics of Eastern ink painting and calligraphy.23 A prolific painter, Motherwell was an equally accomplished printmaker, engaging deeply with print media since the 1960s, when advances in technique and the collaboration of expert printmakers allowed flowing shapes, gestural marks, and subtle variations in tonality to be expressed in print media. Motherwell was able to work with some amount of spontaneity even in etching, typically a laborious process which involves methodically incising a printing plate with a needle. Using liftground techniques, where marks are determined by brushing sugar syrup loosely onto an etching plate, Motherwell created works such as Tallith for Meyer Schapiro, 1973 and Bloomsday, 1981–82, which demonstrate the same fluidity and immediacy as his paintings. In his printing practice Motherwell was especially concerned with achieving rich tonalities of black. Catherine Mousley, who worked as Motherwell’s etching printer during the 1970s, explained that Motherwell utilized a long acid etch for his printing plates in order to achieve a deep black. She recalled, “some artists can look at a lithograph and an etching and they couldn’t tell the difference between the two blacks unless someone points it out. That’s [Motherwell’s] ace in the hole. He knows how he wants it to look. He recognizes it when it looks right.”24 Motherwell’s resolute insistence on achieving the right black reveals the profound importance he attached to the color. To Robert Motherwell, color was intimately linked to experience: ochre was sand or the bright light of the sun; blue was the sky or the ocean, green was grass. The color black, rich beyond other colors in personal and cultural associations, lends a depth and gravity to Robert Motherwell’s art, suffusing his work with profound feeling and poetic expression. Motherwell himself suggested that he belonged to a “family of ‘black’ painters,” in which he included Edouard Manet, Francisco de Goya, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Joan Miró. Placing himself within this lineage, Motherwell acknowledged the centrality of black to his practice. - Molly Moog

Robert Motherwell in Arnason, Robert Motherwell, 221. Flam, Rogers, and Clifford. Robert Motherwell Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 3, 601. 23 Robert Motherwell in Arnason, Robert Motherwell, 221. 24 Catherine Mousley, interview by Stephanie Terenzio in The Painter and the Printer: Robert Motherwell’s Graphics 1943-1980 (New York: American Federation of Arts, 1980), 112-114. 25 Robert Motherwell in Matthew Collings. “Open,” in Robert Motherwell Open, 149. 21 22

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Motherwell in his studio, ca. 1962. Photograph by Fred W. McDarrah.

Robert Motherwell was an American artist and seminal Abstract Expressionist painter. Influenced by the automatism prescribed by Surrealist poets and writers, Motherwell’s practice was characterized by an intuitive approach to painting. He is perhaps best known for his iconic Elegy to the Spanish Republic series, in which the artist painted over 150 variants of large black forms onto white backgrounds. “Painting is a medium in which the mind can actualize itself; it is a medium of thought,” he reflected. “Thus painting, like music, tends to become its own content.” Born on January 24, 1915 in Aberdeen, WA, Motherwell moved to New York to study at Columbia University with the art historian Meyer Schapiro, who encouraged Motherwell to make paintings. During the early 1940s, the artist entered the milieu of artists in the city, including William Baziotes, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and others who were part of the New York School. In 1951, Motherwell taught Cy Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg at the famed Black Mountain College. He continued to lecture and publish on art history for the rest of his career. Motherwell died on July 16, 1991 in Cape Cod, MA. Today, the artist’s works are held in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Tate Gallery in London, among many others.


Published on the occasion of the exhibition

ROBERT MORTHERWELL: BLACK May 4 - June 15th, 2018

Essay by Molly Moog Designed by Mariana Parisca Edited by William Shearburn, Katherine Rodway Vega Cover Image: Untitled, 1963/1968, Acrylic and chalk on canvas, 42 x 40 inches Artwork photgraphy by © 2018 Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, NY and Mariana Parisca © 2018 Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA ISBN-13: 978-0-692-12987-6

We would like to thank Molly Moog for the contribution of her essay.

665 S. Skinker Boulevard, Saint Louis, MO 63105 | 314.367.8020 info@shearburngallery.com | shearburngallery.com


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