Art

Taking Another Look at Robert Motherwell

Motherwell MoMA
Robert Motherwell's paintings in the Museum of Modern Art's "Abstract Expressionist New York" exhibit (photo by the author)

The Museum of Modern Art’s sprawling re-envisioning of Abstract Expressionism in New York, Abstract Expressionist New York, inspires a lot of looking. The stately museum’s upper floor galleries, previously dedicated to the slow progress of abstraction in modern art, have been shuffled around to get a better view of exactly how the movement we came to call Abstract Expressionism developed. The show encompasses multiple floors, but the real show-stopper galleries are found on the fourth. The spaces collect together the Bold-Faced Names of the movement, entire galleries of Jackson Pollock splatter paintings and Mark Rothko monoliths, a wide frame view of the time that American took over the art world.

Yet it was one particular showing that caught my eye and really caused me to stop in my tracks and rethink where I pigeonholed these artists. Standing sentinel on one back wall were two works that cohered together perfectly, paintings whose muted colors became bright and whose architectonic compositions were like an abstract expressionism slowed down and frozen in time. Upon closer approach, I noticed that the pieces were by Robert Motherwell, an artist I was aware of and respected, but didn’t enormously enjoy. Yet something about these two paintings, “Western Air” (1946-47) and “Personage, with Yellow Ochre and White” (1947) made me reconsider.

Robert Motherwell, "Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 70", 1961 (from metmuseum.org)

A usual trip to MoMA’s AbEx galleries prior to this exhibition might reveal a few Motherwells hanging out with Franz Klines or Hans Hoffmans, the concrete-solid swaths of colors shared among the various artists. But what Motherwell was always characterized by were his works in the Elegies for the Spanish Republic series, powerful paintings that slashed black stab wounds into white grounds. Inspired by the writing of Federico García Lorca, a Spanish poet killed by the Fascists in 1936, the works in Motherwell’s series are preternaturally violent and call to mind the horrors of war, nonobjective compositions becoming representations of chaos and powerlessness. But what bothers me about these paintings is that they’re so monolithic, so inexorably black and white. It gets tedious! After seeing the Elegies so often, those works became my definition of Motherwell; the artist and the overcharged, over-dramatic works were inextricable.

It speaks to the dangers of unchanging consistency of museum displays that this became my Motherwell cliche. The Elegies series is regarded as the artist’s greatest work, but that means that we rarely get the opportunity to see paintings that depart from that theme. Where the Elegies series kicked off in 1948 with a pen drawing, these two paintings presage it. Their gentle colors, composite density and dusty solidity, are a different tack in the AbEx world. Partaking in the quiet presence of Ben Nicholson and presaging the abstract work of Richard Diebenkorn, even playing off the surreal wireframes of Paul Klee, this is a gentler and subtler but no less powerful Motherwell. Seeing “Western Air” and “Personage” in the greater context of AbEx was surprising and revealing, and it was nice to get a different look at a great artist that I hadn’t appreciated as much before.

The whole re-thinking process brings to mind the value of museum exhibitions like MoMA’s “Abstract Expressionist New York.” Shows that uncover previously niche corners of art history cause us to break up the one-sided view we have of artists whose “masterpieces” aren’t always representative of their greater body of work. MoMA’s exhibition does a great job of that, showing less-seen work that expands our definition and view of Abstract Expressionism.

Abstract Expressionist New York at MoMA (11 West 53 Street, Manhattan) continues until April 25, 2011.

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