The Motherwell retrospective exhibition that came to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum this winter[1] was the artist’s first major retrospective in the United States since 1965, when the Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective that was organized by the poet Frank O’Hara, then associate curator at the museum. The recently closed exhibition included many works from the late Sixties and Seventies—an especially productive period for Motherwell—and, notwithstanding a few lamentable omissions, it provided viewers with a rich and judicious selection from the artist’s oeuvre from the early Forties to the present. Coinciding with Motherwell’s seventieth birthday, in January, the exhibition was also an invitation to reconsider Motherwell’s long and distinguished career and to reflect on his artistic achievement and role as a charter member of the phenomenon we have come to call Abstract Expressionism.

As if to aid in this task, the Guggenheim supplemented the ninety-two paintings and collages of the original exhibition with about sixty additional works, including drawings and a few prints. Many of these small, mostly minor, productions adorned the back wall of the Museum’s High Gallery. But despite the concentration of some forty pieces on one wall, the overall effect, far from being cramped, was one of delightful profusion and vivacity. Indeed, this installation was one of the exhibition’s most successful moments.

Complications elsewhere were mostly a matter of logistics. For one thing, the nearly one hundred and fifty works on display seemed to be arranged more or less thematically, without particular regard for chronology. Since it is in the nature of a retrospective to encourage us to look back over its subject’s development, this made for some confusion. The natural impulse to trace Motherwell’s journey from the early paintings and collages through the Elegies to the Open series and other late works was frequently stymied.

Any retrospective of an artist as prolific as Motherwell has to leave out a good deal.

Nor was one’s appreciation of Motherwell enhanced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s polemic against modern painting—the Museum itself. Of course, this is by now a familiar complaint. The Guggenheim has been the object of vigorous criticism almost since it opened its doors. But the Motherwell retrospective once again reminded us of how singularly inhospitable the Museum’s main exhibition space is as an arena for looking at art. (Its suitability as a space for looking at people looking at art is quite another matter; it is here, perhaps, that its real, virtues as a public space emerge.) Vertigo is a constant danger if one gets too close to the railing on the higher stories—close enough, say, to view larger canvases—and the steep grade of the spiraling floor provokes the unpleasant sensation of being dragged down along a predetermined itinerary. Further, the curved walls of the exhibition bays tend to make large canvases appear slightly concave—a distinct liability when one is confronting works that aim, as many of Motherwell’s do, at uncompromising flatness.

Any retrospective of an artist as prolific as Motherwell has to leave out a good deal. In this show, I particularly missed any examples of Beside the Sea, a lyrical series in oil on heavy rag paper done mostly in the early Sixties. But perhaps the most significant omissions were of the early collage, Pancho Villa Dead and Alive (1943), and the powerful 1949 oil and tempera painting, The Voyage.

Robert MotherwellPancho Villa, Dead and Alive, 1943, Cut-and-pasted printed and painted papers, wood veneer, gouache, oil, and ink on board, the Museum of Modern Art, New York. 

Pancho Villa Dead and Alive, a dramatic tribute to the Mexican folk hero, is one of Motherwell’s most often noted early collages. Exhibited in his first one-man show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery in 1944, it has a special historical importance in any overview of his artistic development. And The Voyage is one of Motherwell’s five or six most celebrated paintings. It can stand as a statement in paint of his modernist artistic credo. The title, as Motherwell has noted, was inspired by Baudelaire’s poem Le Voyage, and the painting successfully communicates that passion for the new, the new at any cost, that the young painter found so enticing in Baudelaire’s paean to the Unknown:

Nous voulons . . .
Plonger au fond du gouffre, Enfer ou Ciel, qu’importe?
Au fond de 1’Inconnu pour trouver de nouveau![2]

The two works are illustrated in the exhibition catalogue, but their absence from the show was unfortunate—and, one would like to think, unnecessary, since they both reside nearby at the Museum of Modern Art.

Robert MotherwellThe Voyage, 1949,  Oil and tempera on paper mounted on composition board,  the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

In general, though, Messrs. Schultz and Buck—together with Diane Waldman, who installed the show at the Guggenheim—succeeded admirably in representing Motherwell’s activity as a painter and collagist. (With a few significant exceptions—the pieces assembled in the High Gallery being the most notable—his drawings and prints were left largely out of account.) Among early works, The Little Spanish Prison (1941)—generally considered his first mature painting—was included, as were the energetic 1943 works Joy of Living and Personage. Motherwell’s handling of forms in the latter two reveal obvious debts to Picasso’s synthetic Cubism and to the late work of Klee and Kandinsky. But by the time he paints The Homely Protestant (Bust) (c. 1947-8) and The Homely Protestant (1948) Motherwell has assimilated these influences and the more recent influence of Dubuffet (whose paintings he could have seen at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in 1946) into a style more decidedly his own. In fact, there is a great deal about these witty ochre “portraits” that bears the stamp of Motherwell’s sensibility—not least the genesis of the wonderfully apt title, which he arrived at by opening Finnegan’s Wake and placing his finger at random on the phrase.

Robert MotherwellThe Little Spanish Prison, 1941-44, Oil on canvas, the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Motherwell is often credited with reinvigorating, and refining, the art of the collage. His abiding interest in the medium dates from 1943, when Peggy Guggenheim invited him, Jackson Pollock, and William Baziotes to submit collages for an exhibition that she was planning at her gallery. The prospect was especially exciting for the young artists since the exhibition was to include works by Picasso, Braque, Miró, Matisse, and other European masters. Motherwell worked on his first collages—including Pancho Villa Dead and Alive—together with Jackson Pollock in Pollock’s better-equipped studio. The retrospective testified to the considerable range of Motherwell’s experiments in this pliable genre, from the turbulent business of Joy of Living to the whispering intensities of Mallarmé’s Swan (1944-47), from the slick elegance of something like The Trench Line (1960) to the spare but calculated juxtapositions of Black Refracts Heat (1974).

As a group, Motherwell’s collages are probably the most immediately charming and accessible of his works. Some, like Mallarmé’s Swan, exhibit a striking concentration and energy. This work in particular is possessed of a beautifully poised strength and delicacy that make it a classic of the period. But many—and The French Line and Motherwell’s well-known essays with the Gauloise cigarette wrapper must be included here—seem more purely decorative: still charming, yes, but lacking precisely that edge of feeling that can lift a work above the merely charming and decorative. Some of Motherwell’s leaner but conceptually more ambitious efforts—Black Refracts Heat, for instance, or Black Sounds (1982-83)—elicit a more complicated reaction. Here one’s response tends to oscillate uncomfortably between extremes, between the feeling that they are exquisitely composed and effective and, alternately, the conviction that they are at bottom contrived, rote performances.

In his essay for the catalogue of the 1965 retrospective of Motherwell’s works at the Museum of Modern Art, Frank O’Hara observed that in Motherwell “the family of forms is a relatively small one and the plastic handling of them carries the burden of intention.” In this context it is worth noting that Motherwell has often been charged with being unduly repetitive. His penchant for working out variations of a visual motif in a series of paintings gives at least prima facie support to this charge. There are, for example, more than one hundred and forty paintings in the Elegy to the Spanish Republic series, more than two hundred in the Open series.

What is the effect of such sustained repetition on our response to Motherwell’s work? He has written that “painting that does not radiate feeling is not worth looking at.” Can the requisite feeling survive one hundred and forty or two hundred variations? There is no denying that there are often great similarities among paintings in a series—one Elegy can look very much like another. And it may be that Motherwell is too willing to “publish” works that are not fully achieved, or that are merely studies on the way toward something new, or that really are essentially repetitions of an already articulated theme.

But it must also be granted that there are often significant differences among the paintings in a series, differences in tone, manner, and use of materials as well as more obvious inconographic differences. Still, O’Hara was right: Motherwell tends to focus on exploring a small body of forms. His approach is more intensive than extensive—more an art of elaboration than invention, to put it another way, though it is well to remember that elaboration sufficiently developed is itself a kind of invention.

Motherwell tends to focus on exploring a small body of forms.

Furthermore, none of this should be taken to deny the liveliness of Motherwell’s pictorial vocabulary. The early works and many of the collages display a freer, more fanciful exploration of visual forms than do the major “series” paintings, which grapple in a sustained way with the visual and emotional possibilities of a deliberately circumscribed set of forms. In fact, when we step back from individual pieces to consider Motherwell’s work as a whole, we can discern a division or vacillation at the heart of his artistic ambitions. On the one hand, Motherwell produces works of great intimacy and seductiveness, works whose surfaces celebrate the aesthetic richness of visual experience. But he has also consistently aimed at producing sterner, more monumental works whose innate artistic significance would exempt them from the obligation to be merely “pleasing.” Just how successful he has been in the latter is a question worth considering. At the moment, I want only to emphasize that much of Motherwell’s work—some of his less numerous series paintings, for example—are decidedly more “extensive” than “intensive,” more fanciful, inventive, and spontaneous in their exploration of visual forms than the major series paintings tend to be.

In this context, one thinks of the sumptuous Summertime in Italy series or, especially, of the Je t’aime series, of which there were two paintings and two drawings in the show. Begun in 1955, the je t’aime paintings generally consist of a ground mostly of reds or browns and reds upon which the words “Je t’aime” (and occasionally a few other French words) appear in varying degrees of legibility. The highly gestural quality of Motherwell’s brushwork is dramatically evident in these works, often as much in the “calligraphy” as in the ground, and they can be pleasingly evocative.

In what is pretty much the standard work on Motherwell,[3] H. H. Arnason, writing about the Je t’aime paintings, notes the artist’s longstanding interest in the interaction of word and image. Arnason is not very specific about the significance of that interaction, though no doubt Motherwell himself would resist being too exact on that point, fearing to sacrifice evocativeness to specificity. Yet the presence of the familiar phrase does color one’s response to these paintings. Intelligible words of any sort in a painting will obviously be read and influence interpretation, even if the question of just how we are to read such words—naively? ironically? humorously?—and how that reading is to influence our interpretation of the work must be left somewhat in abeyance. In the present case, one naturally wonders to whom—or to what—the phrase is addressed. Motherwell’s lifelong love affair with French culture suggests that the phrase may token his affection for that rich source of inspiration, while the playful abandon that characterizes the surface of the works—the words “Ce dessin me plaît” appear scrawled across the bottom of one of the drawings—suggests that the object of Motherwell’s love here may have been the very activity of making art.

For his part, Arnason suggests that Motherwell uses a French phrase primarily in order to avoid the sentimental and cliched associations that an American viewer would have to its English equivalent.

While the admixture of word and image always seems to have fascinated him, Motherwell was sensitive to the danger of deadened associations that might arise from an English cliche incorporated into a painting or collage. It was for this reason in the je t’aime paintings that he turned to French, which no doubt is a cliché in French, but not to an American, for whom another language is sufficiently exotic that the verbal significance of a phrase would distance him. At the same time “Je t’aime” did have to him a personal and poignant meaning, although perhaps not literally.

Arnason may be correct that Americans tend to find French “exotic.” But I wonder what percentage of Motherwell’s audience finds a phrase like “Je t’aime” exotic. Would “I love you” have been any more banal? Perhaps. But one can’t help noticing that what is really exotic here is Arnason’s manipulation of English syntax, which manages to suggest that French is a cliché to itself—a suggestion that the French are likely to take exception to.

In any case, the essential truth of O’Hara’s observation about the relative paucity of forms in Motherwell’s art becomes apparent as soon as we turn to his two best-known sets of paintings, the Elegy to the Spanish Republic series and the Open series. Both were lavishly represented in the Guggenheim show. Though there are many, often substantial, variations among the individual paintings, the Opens generally consist of a large field of color intersected at the top by three lines that form a hard-edged “U” or (counting the edge of the canvas as a line) a rectangle. Motherwell often adds a contrasting color and some drawing to the plane formed by the rectangle. The series is said to have had its origin in 1967 in a chance observation. Intrigued by the shape that a smaller canvas formed lying up against a larger one, Motherwell traced the outline onto the larger canvas, thus forming an upside-down “U.” Eventually, he came to prefer the design the other way around, so he inverted the canvas so that the “U” opened upward.

Motherwell has noted that he was inspired to name the resulting series of paintings “Open” by the evocative list of eighty-two entries that the Random House Unabridged Dicitonary furnishes for the word. “For me,” he explains in some remarks on his work included in Arnason’s book, “those entries are one of the most beautiful poems in modern English, filled with all kinds of associations.” And some of the best Opens—visually tight, concentrated, yet splendidly suggestive—are similarly replete with associations, the drawn rectangle attracting our attention like a beckoning window. There are, however, a great many of them, some considerably more successful than others, and seeing more than a few at one time can mute their effect and make them seem drearily formulaic.

It is often observed that with the Open series, Motherwell begins to move away from the highly gestural quality that characterizes his work through the early Sixties toward Color-field painting. There is obviously something right about this. But Irving Sandler is probably closer to the truth when he speaks, in The Triumph of American Painting,[4] of Motherwell “fusing” gestural and Color-field tendencies. Motherwell’s dynamic brushwork continually enlivens and complicates even his flattest, most monochromatic paintings, often enlisting color itself as a kind of gesture. And the influence of Minimalism on the simplification of Motherwell’s pictorial means in the Opens is also patent and perhaps even more significant. Coming into its own in the 1960s, Min imalism’s rigorous, almost ascetic, program of “essentializing” art gave new impetus to Motherwell’s own abiding interest in distilling his visual forms in order to explore their purest, most expressive elements.

The fruits of this process of distillation are also evident in other recent works. The In Plato’s Cave series, for example, bears witness to the expressive possibilities of Motherwell’s experiments with variations on the Opens. I found In Plato’s Cave No. 1 (1972) a particularly successful work. In many respects, the grisaille study preserves the iconography of the Opens. It, too, presents a plane intersected by orthogonals in the shape of an incomplete “U.” But its heavily modulated surface—full of black and smokey greys and ashen, ghostlike whites-suggests unfathomable depths. In places, the coarse, nubby texture of the canvas shows through clearly; in other places it is almost totally obscured by layers of paint. One begins to feel as if one really were staring into Plato’s cave, or its painterly simulacrum: into a realm of shadows where mere semblances parade by trapped but unsuspecting viewers who are fated to misconstrue the images they see for realities. Though clearly indebted to the Opens, this powerful work communicates a markedly different, and more mysterious, emotion.

Of course the paintings that we most readily associate with Motherwell are his Spanish Elegies. Motherwell first created the image of heavy black bars squeezing black ovoids on a white ground in 1948 in an illustration for a poem by Harold Rosenberg. The small At Five in the Afternoon (1949), after a poem by Federico García Lorca, is a completed Elegy in miniature. But he did not begin using the generic name Elegy to the Spanish Republic until the Fifties. His best-known Elegies—No. 34, for example, which was in the show—are large canvases done mostly in black and white but highlighted with splashes of bright color.

It is Motherwell’s dramatic use of black—indebted, as has been often noted, to Goya, Matisse, and Picasso’s Guernica—that brings to life and gives pathos to the memorable image that forms the core of the Elegies. Like de Kooning, Still, Kline, and other New York School painters, Motherwell found a new reservoir of expressive possibilities in the stark polarity of black against white, possibilities that helped free painting from its conventional “artsy” associations with “pretty” or “prettifying” colors. Indeed, exploitation of the expressive possibilities of black and white—not only in the Elegies but also in works like The Voyage and (less successfully) Spanish Painting with the Face of a Dog (1958), as well as in numerous all-black-and-white paintings—has been one of Motherwell’s central artistic concerns.

Robert MotherwellSpanish Painting with the Face of a Dog, 1958, Oil on canvas, Christie’s New York.

The Elegies as such no longer seem to occupy a central place in Motherwell’s work. Despite their ostensible political reference, he has written that the Elegies “are not ‘political,’ but my private insistence that a terrible death has happened that should not be forgot.” And after the death of Franco and the establishment of democracy in Spain, elegizing the republic may not be the best way to offer, as Motherwell claims to have intended with the Elegies, “general metaphors of the contrast between life and death, and their interrelation.” There is, nevertheless, a marked persistence of elegy-like images in Motherwell’s later work. In The Hollow Men (1983), for example, brooding purples war with brilliant, textured yellows that are cut into ovoids by a parade of jittery drawing. Anything by Motherwell that includes such ovoid shapes will recall the Elegies, of course, and it is easy to see the impact of the Elegies on The Hollow Men. One may wonder how well this image—by now so bound up for us with Franco’s Spain—can work apart from its original connotations. But even more noteworthy is how much of an emotional departure from the Elegies the recent work is, how Motherwell’s use of color and drawing here infuse the familiar elegy form with a decidedly “unelegiac” feeling. The Hollow Men may, in fact, represent a new step in Motherwell’s artistic evolution.

The retrospective at the Guggenheim provided the basic visual materials to trace the course of that evolution; what remains is to assess its artistic achievement. This is a considerably more difficult task. One problem that must be overcome in attempting it is that much of the recent literature on Motherwell is essentially an exercise in hagiography, not art criticism. Arnason, for example, pauses to tell us that “It has been suggested that of all living artists, Motherwell, in the range of his work, the breadth of his knowledge, and the passion of his expression, most closely approximates the concept of a Renaissance man.” And Jack D. Flam concludes his essay for the exhibition catalogue by celebrating Motherwell “the puritan and the sensualist, the social being and the recluse, the thinker and the force of nature.” “And how much culture is evident in those works,” purrs Mr. Flam, “How many references—both overt and recondite—are woven into his paintings and drawings; references to myth and poetry, to politics and history, to philosophy and to other art.” Mirabile dictu! It is hard to know what to make of such effusions—which are not, alas, uncommon in the Motherwell industry—but they can hardly be said to inspire confidence in the author’s critical independence.

Nor do Arnason’s more particular judgments strike one as particularly well considered. “Many of the Elegies,” he writes, “are among the most important paintings of the twentieth century.” Now what can this mean? How many “most important paintings of the twentieth century” can there be? Five? Ten? Twenty-five? At their best, the Elegies—No. 34, for instance, or the starker No. LV (1955-60)—are well-painted, moving works of art. But are even the best of them as important, historically or artistically, as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon? Matisse’s Dance? Miró’s The Birth of the World? Pollock’s Lavender Mist? Or as any of the score of other works that come to mind when one reviews the signal achievements of twentieth-century painting? Unfortunately, the Guggenheim retrospective failed to persuade us that this is the case.

What is particularly damaging about such inflationary claims is that they tend to distract one from Motherwell’s considerable artistic achievements. Especially because one gets the sense that they are written, as it were, from inside the Motherwell camp, they do not increase our esteem for the artist’s accomplishments but only make us suspicious of a conspiracy being waged on the artist’s behalf.

One would like to be able to say that the exhibition catalogue provides a more circumspect response to Motherwell’s work. Unfortunately, though, the fulsome tributes provided by Robert T. Buck, Jack Flam, and Dore Ashton mostly echo Arnason’s homage.[5] I have already mentioned Mr. Flam’s essay. It would be cruel to dwell on it or the other contributions to the catalogue in any detail; Mr. Buck’s introduction is practically subliterate, and Miss Ashton’s essay, like Mr. Flam’s, merely rehearses the received pieties of the Motherwell legend. But since the catalogue will stand as the lasting record of the exhibition, a word or two must be said about its success in conveying an accurate impression of Motherwell’s work.

In his now-classic study of Titian, Erwin Panofsky chose to illustrate his text with black and white photographs. He decided against color plates, he explains, not in spite of Titian’s greatness as a colorist, but because of it. In his view, even the best color photographs would only misrepresent the subtleties of the master’s palette. Panofsky’s scruple can, of course, be generalized. Photographs of art can easily mislead us about not only the color but also the scale, texture, and “feel” of the original. But color photographs do have a legitimate illustrative role to play in the documentation of art, and by now—technical capabilities being what they are—one expects them to maintain a reasonably high degree of fidelity to the original.

Of course no one expects photographs to measure up to the original.

This is especially important in photographing works of an artist like Motherwell, for whom color is sometimes a central concern. When he paints something blue, a photograph should represent it as blue, not purple; and if he uses lemon yellow, it should not come out looking like mustard. Unfortunately, this is precisely what happens in the catalogue. The photographs are by several hands, and many if not most of them grossly misrepresent Motherwell’s color. The frontispiece, for example, is a color plate of Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 34; and not only does the photograph conspicuously lack vibrancy and brightness, but the vivid blocks of blue that appear in the original are adamantly purple in the photograph. And The Little Spanish Prison, predominantly chalky white and yellow in the original, is a study in beige and mustard in the catalogue.

Of course no one expects photographs to measure up to the original. But it is worth noting William Seitz’s observation that, because of their tonal quality, Motherwell’s paintings, “photograph well.”[6] I suspect that the coloristic subtleties of some of his later canvases—the modulated wash of blues in The Blue Painting Lesson series (1973), for example—would provide the photographer with more of a challenge. But the often excellent color reproductions in Arnason’s book support Seitz’s claim and make one wish that more care had been taken with the catalogue for the exhibition.

A great deal is made, in the literature on Motherwell, of the artist’s articulateness and high degree of culture—his “extraordinary skills,” as Mr. Buck put it in his introduction, “as a writer and editor.” These skills have made him, according to Mr. Buck, “the unofficial American spokesman for his artistic times.” Motherwell’s interest in nineteenth- and twentieth-century French writers like Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Breton is especially touted in this context, as is his background in philosophy (Motherwell took his A.B. at Stanford in philosophy and did graduate work in philosophy at Harvard in 1937-38).

In fact, the quality of Motherwell’s writings varies greatly, in style and substance, from the limpidly astute to the barely readable. In addition to various statements he has issued over the years about his art, Motherwell’s most important literary productions include The Documents of Modern Art series, which he began editing in 1944, Modem Artists in America, which he edited with Ad Reinhardt in 1951, The Documents of 20th-Century Art, and—perhaps his most important contribution to art scholarship—The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, which he edited and wrote a preface and introduction for in 1951. Examination of his writings is, of course, a subject for another essay. But Motherwell’s literary and philosophical interests do not show themselves only in his writings; they also impinge directly on his activity as an artist, helping to inform his methods and to articulate his artistic goals. In order to appreciate his distinctive achievement, then, it is necessary to give at least brief consideration to the constellation of ideas that his artistic practice as an Abstract Expressionist painter presupposes.

Like other Abstract Expressionists, Motherwell has acknowledged—indeed, he has insisted on—the importance of chance and raw, unedited impulse in his approach to making art. In the foreword he recently contributed to Abstract Expressionist Painting in America, he approvingly quotes Seitz’s precis of the “method” of Abstract Expressionism.

[T]he spirit in which the extreme Abstract Expressionist painting is begun can be summarized thus: shapes, colors, and lines are placed on the canvas with the least possible premeditation, their initial form and juxtaposition dictated by various levels of the sub-, un-, or semi-consciousness—by unplanned inspirations, by sheer fortuity, or by the inherent nature of the medium. Here is a disorganized but vital complex of raw formal data—an uncoordinated “unknown,” a Heraclitean flux which the painter during subsequent phases of the process relates, alters, and organizes on the basis of a mediating set of attitudes and principles which runs throughout his works, and even throughout his life.

Motherwell has described his own procedure in similar terms: “I begin a painting with a series of mistakes,” he explained in the catalogue accompanying an exhibition at the Samuel Kootz Gallery in 1947. “The painting comes out of the correction of mistakes by feeling . . . . The final picture is the process arrested at the moment when what I was looking for flashes into view.”

The major historical source of this commitment to fortuity and feeling, as Motherwell has often pointed out, is the Surrealist principle of “psychic automatism.” Motherwell arrived in New York in 1939 and became acquainted with the heady idea when, a year later, Meyer Schapiro introduced him to Breton, Ernst, Duchamp, Matta, and other émigré artists who championed chance and automatism. Motherwell has described automatism—or, as he has come to call it, “artistic scribbling”—as the “core” of Abstract Expressionism, as its distinctively modernist answer to an artistic tradition at the end of its tether. No matter that this celebration of chance exposed the artist to the chance of failure on a hitherto undreamt of scale: in periods of artistic stagnation—and to the Abstract Expressionists, American painting in the late Thirties epitomized artistic stagnation—the motto is “Risk all or gain nothing.” At such times, risk-taking seems to be part of the essence of art, necessary if art is to be anything more than mere decoration.

But where the spirit of risk-taking in Surrealism was primarily negative—a form of rebellion that asserted the transcendence of human freedom in the face of an essentially absurd reality—the risk-taking spirit of Abstract Expressionism sought to recover the lost or hidden meaning of reality through a deliberate exploitation of spontaneity and feeling. As Motherwell put it, in rejecting “the world of objects, the world of power and propaganda, the world of anecdotes,” and so forth, abstract art does not exile itself from reality but delves deeper into it. Thus he can describe abstract art as a “form of mysticism,” a process “in which one’s own being is revealed, willingly or not, which is precisely originality, that burden of modernist individualism.” In this sense, despite the determinative, European influence of Dada and Surrealism, there is something distinctively American, even Emersonian, about the optimistic ambitions of Abstract Expressionism. “What is the aboriginal Self,” asked Emerson in “Self Reliance,”

on what universal reliance may it be grounded? What is the nature and power of that science-baffling star, without parallax, without calculable elements, which shoots a ray of beauty even into trivial and impure actions, if the least mark of independence appear? The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct.

For the Abstract Expressionists, as Clement Greenberg observed in his classic 1955 essay, “‘American-Type’ Painting,” “conventions are overhauled, not for revolutionary effect, but in order to maintain the irreplacibility and renew the vitality of art in the face of a society bent in principle on rationalizing everything.” By loosening the shackles of outworn artistic conventions, automatism promised the means to free painting from the edifying and narrowly realistic productions sponsored by the Federal Art Project and the WPA; it promised a new creative principle; it promised, above all, a means of tapping the deeper, more personal, subjectively more authentic stratum of feeling and experience that any art worth practicing must concern itself with.

But almost from the moment that he decided to devote himself to painting, in 1941, Motherwell has been something of an anomaly. Unlike some Abstract Expressionists—Jackson Pollock is only the most obvious example—Motherwell does not really submit to automatism; he invokes it, reflectively, and makes deliberate use of it. And unlike others—Ad Reinhardt, for example, in whose art ratiocination was absolutely central—Motherwell depends upon but is reluctant to acknowledge the intellectual, reflective dimension of his art. His painting “radiates feelings” to be sure, as he insists all good painting must, but it is feeling filtered, checked, and criticized.

Early on, in fact, Motherwell seems to have recognized this. As he put it in conversation to William Seitz, “I cover the battleground, so no evidence of the battle remains. For the other Abstract Expressionists it must show strongly.” This would appear to have been evident from the beginning of Motherwell’s career. Already in 1951, Thomas B. Hess observed that “Motherwell has stressed the automatic element in his methods, but he seems to depend more on a process of judicious recognition.” The final effect, wrote Hess, was of “luxurious good taste.”[7] And in 1955 Seitz noted, apropos Motherwell’s use of automatism, that his “civilized restraint, intellectuality, and keen sense of tangible materiality—all perhaps more automatic to him than abandon—never let him give fluidity and fortuity full play.”

Eventually, however, Motherwell revised his opinion and began to downplay the element of cultivation in his work and to stress the presence of untamed feeling. In an open letter to Frank O’Hara in 1965, for example, he speaks of regretting having referred so much to the French “because it gives the impression of something a bit precious and overcultivated.” And one is not surprised to discover that many critics have rallied to corroborate Motherwell’s new self-interpretation. For example, in her essay for the exhibition catalogue, Dore Ashton tells us that “No matter how lighthearted some of Motherwell’s incidental work has been, it has always veered, becoming an expressive tide that sometimes overflows its boundaries.” And the dependable Arnason writes that “Despite the high degree of sophistication evident in Motherwell’s works, the overriding effect of many of them is that of primitive force, something atavistic in the most highly urbanized of modern man” (sic).

But in fact, Motherwell’s real genius is not at all for unrestrained visual dynamism. Despite his rhetoric, there is really very little of his hero Rimbaud’s dérèglement de tous les sens in Motherwell’s art. Quite the contrary, one consistently senses that the risks have been calculated beforehand, the chances carefully weighed. Indeed, the truth is that his art often does give one the impression of something a “bit precious and overcultivated.” However “automatically” produced it may be, it strikes one as essentially circumspect, urbane, reflective.

In her preface to the second edition of Arnason’s book, Miss Ashton speaks of Motherwell’s “need to infuse his work with meaning.” But here, I think, she may have spoken truer than she purposed. For the kind of primitive, almost mythic meaning that Motherwell and his coterie of critics like to claim for his work must be discovered, not “infused.” As the fact of his scholarly work on Dada suggests, Motherwell is more a student of psychic automatism than part of the sensibility that created or embodied it.

Among the Abstract Expressionists, he is without doubt the man most knowledgeable about the modernist avant-garde tradition; but perhaps for that very reason, the modernist tradition—itself so iconoclastic and anti-traditional—ceased being a living provocation and became . . . well, a tradition for him. It is something whose gestures he appropriates but whose essential outlook he finds quite foreign. In his best works, at least—Mallarmé’s Swan, The Homely Protestant, In Plato’s Cave No. 1, to name just three—he communicates something easier, more intimate, yet also somehow smaller. This is not, of course, to deny his considerable achievement. Motherwell is not more than he is, but he is not less than he is, either. As this retrospective amply demonstrated, he has created some of the most sensitive and sophisticated, if not the deepest, Abstract Expressionist art, and for this history is likely to regard him as one of the artistic leaders of his generation.

  1. Robert Motherwell had its debut at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, in October, 1983. The show was organized by Douglas G. Schultz, chief curator of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, under the direction of Robert T. Buck, former director of the gallery. After Buffalo, the show travelled to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, and New York. The exhibition was on view at the Guggenheim from December 7 through February 3. Go back to the text.
  2. “We would . . ./Plunge to the bottom of the abyss —Hell or Heaven, what matter?/If only we find in the depths of the Unknown the new!” Go back to the text.
  3. Robert Motherwell, Abrams, 1977. Revised edition, 1982. Go back to the text.
  4. The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism. Praeger, 1970. Go back to the text.
  5. Robert Motherwell, with an introduction by Robert T. Buck and essays by Jack D. Flam and Dore Ashton. Abbeville Press, 156 pages, $35. Go back to the text.
  6. Despite some omissions that seem odd with the wisdom of hindsight, Seitz’s pioneering 1955 study, Abstract Expressionist Painting in America, is still one of the most rigorous and thoughtful investigations of the subject. Originally his Ph.D. dissertation for Princeton University, it was first published in book form by Harvard University Press in 1983. As published, incidentally, the book contains a foreword by Motherwell and an introduction by Dore Ashton. Go back to the text.
  7. Abstract Painting: Background and American Phase. Viking, 1951. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 3 Number 7, on page 31
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