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In 1950, when the painter Robert Motherwell invented the phrase “The School of New York,” he summed up its mission as “an activity of bodily gesture serving to sharpen consciousness.” Paul Kasmin Gallery’s Robert Motherwell: Works on Paper 1951–1991 testifies to that still-radical modernist belief that an artist should try for a maximum degree of innovation on behalf of a totally personalized expression. And there is enough varied, dynamic work here, much of it on a small scale, that can captivate even those wary of Motherwell’s occasional portentousness.
To underscore Motherwell’s relevance to today’s avant-garde, Paul Kasmin Gallery collaborated with Middlemarch in Brussels to mount a concurrent group exhibition called 173 E 94th St. / Chaussée de Waterloo 550. Named partly after the address of the artist’s longtime uptown residence, the show features a number of prominent artists, such as Will Boone, Don Voisine, and Jessica Sanders, responding to particular facets of Motherwell’s aesthetic style.
Especially since his death in 1991, Motherwell has become a hybrid figure. He is a titan of the postwar American art establishment enshrined in major monographs and the collections of leading museums while still ringing up the registers at auction houses. Yet in his writings and speeches, he remains something of an outlier as an avatar of international radicalism in art, arguing tirelessly for the breakup of national borders and against parochial concerns in art.
Throughout his career, and most convincingly in these works on paper, he practiced that gospel while preaching it. In film footage, he is forever bespectacled, chain-smoking, slouched in tweed jackets, holding forth on Martin Heidegger or Dadaism or children’s art and repeatedly quoting Arthur Rimbaud’s visionary dictum, from his poem “Adieu,” that declared “one must be absolutely modern.” For Motherwell, “modern” meant the practice of a universal art built around an emphasis on materiality and the momentary, freeing the maker and the made of historical and cultural responsibilities.
Motherwell’s backstory explains a lot. Although he was interested in contemporary European art and poetry, he followed up on his undergraduate degree at Stanford in the late 1930s by shipping off to Harvard to placate his demanding father, the president of Wells Fargo Bank. Abandoning an academic career in philosophy, at the age of twenty-five, he took up painting while at Columbia University.
He grappled with the seductive influence of Cubism and through his teacher Meyer Schapiro he befriended Surrealists like Roberto Matta Echaurren as well as Dada’s founder, Marcel Duchamp. From the Surrealists, he adopted the procedures of psychic automatism, a kind of unscripted, spontaneous method of drawing and painting that circumvents the will of the ego to unlock secrets of personal identity or individual consciousness. While he served as the Surrealists’ interpreter and introduced them to the pleasures of hot dogs and Coca Cola, Motherwell gradually distanced himself from their program, particularly its representational inclinations and its resistance to revisions.
Over time, with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and even his former wife Helen Frankenthaler as immediate peers and influences, Motherwell created a stripped-down, somber style of gestural abstraction. While his posthumous reputation as a seminal New York figure remains largely unchallenged, he has not been quite forgiven for the sin he kept repeating: time and again, this Abstract Expressionist was caught pondering aesthetic philosophy in public.
The Kasmin show throws the spotlight decisively back on the artwork. It is curated chronologically, beginning with four mainly black-and-white semi-figurative works from the 1950s. These works reveal Motherwell casting off illustrative impulses.
In “Fowl” (1951), a white silhouette of a bird seems almost cut out from the surrounding black background. The ghostlike figure is then filled in with a nerve-like network consisting of fluid, overlapping, trickling lines. These strokes form a symbolic, skeletal view inside the depicted bird. Yet they seem to be what the painter called his sophisticated “doodling,” revealing the artist’s subconscious state of mind within the unfolding act of composition.
By the early 1960s, a clean break from figuration coincided with Motherwell’s return to color in the works on paper. Judging from the vast range of works here, the 1960s and early 1970s were the high water mark of his career in this material.
The elegant “Lyric Suite” series from the mid-1960s, showcased in the gallery’s back room, uses psychic automatism to create spare, contemplative pictures on nine-by- eleven-inch sheets of rice paper. The brushstrokes produce clean, outstanding marks and well-ordered blotches in bold, concentrated colors and shapes, while the unpainted white spaces equally emerge as fortuitous, expressive patterns. In one such bravura piece, curved blue bands breaking out in competing directions establish a perfect visual rhythm. Their calligraphic elegance is then complicated by small, irregularly applied blots and fine strokes of brown paint, resulting in an absorbing contrapuntal energy between the thick, carefully applied blue and the freewheeling brown.
In another work, an amoeba-like blue blob seems like a land mass in some mythic realm. In the upper left corner of the same work, a competing, looming swell of blue has been painted over a residual orange that bleeds at the fringes, or “coastlines,” of the form. The white paper forms an isthmus between these two shapes. There is a kind of mental cartography at work. The painter is charting fleeting states of being or flashes of insight rendered in this mute diction of the paintbrush, flourished as if it were a pen.
In another from this “Lyric Suite” series, what looks like an upside-down uppercase H in watery blue with a russet underlayer is executed as if with three successive and perfect flourishes. A new vocabulary is unfolding. Understanding it requires looking closely, which draws the viewer more deeply into the present moment, often with an uncanny concentration of attention.
A couple of works from this period make up part of his famous “Open” series. The gunmetal gray and rectangular “Open, Bolton Landing” (1969) seems a direct response to the metalwork of sculptor David Smith. The sober, meditative tension between gray and black makes it a desolate, introspective study.
Still other paintings from the 1960s use brilliant registers, highlighting the basic interdependence of light, color, paper and paint. In “Automatic Image, No.1” (1963) a rust-colored, buckle-like form looks suspended in sky blue. The form’s center is tinged with white, lending it a three-dimensionality, tricking the eye into seeing sunlight reflecting off the object.
The centerpiece of this project of light, paint and paper is “Study in Watercolor No 2 (In Green and Blue)” (1968). An explosive bright blue swath of dripped paint radiates splattered lines and dots. The image seems to embody a life-producing charge of pure energy. Yet the work is remarkably balanced. The meteoric tail disrupts a placid, thickly painted green band along the bottom of the painting, creating an interchange between these oppositions.
Collages form another branch of Motherwell’s project with paper. The Kasmin show intermingles many gems from this part of his career. “Librairie Hachette”
(1967) features wrinkled brown paper mailer with the painter’s address and assorted postage stickers and stamps. The wrinkled wrapping paper has been layered onto the beautifully painted pale blue and yellow paper.
The work, like many of the collages, is both autobiographical and oblique. Collages like “Untitled (Gran Vin or Red)” (1973) use artifacts of the artist’s daily life — especially his epicurean tastes — and then efface the cultural context by resituating the found materials within abstract planes of starkly contrasting primary colors. His arrangements of paper upon paper create an allusive visual poetry, as atavistic and spare as the literary work of Motherwell’s friend, the Mexican poet Octavio Paz, for whom the painter created lithographs for a limited edition called Three Poems (1988).
By the early 1980s, Motherwell had come full circle to work once again in black and white. “Untitled 1981” is the most theatrical of these divergent, uneven late works, combining a ferociously rendered bracket-shaped form, a violent squib and a constellation of splats and drips of black paint, producing a symbolic universe unified by the tension between the bright white paper and the inky gesticulations generated by the black paint.
Paul Kasmin Gallery had insufficient room to include all twenty-one works on paper from Motherwell’s Joyce Sketchbook (1985). As director Eric Gleason explained to me, the gallery decided to keep them all together installed in a private viewing space, along with an online digital catalogue of these curious late works.
Many of these very small paintings were produced in the late 1980s to illustrate a volume of James Joyce’s Ulysses, paying homage to the painter’s most beloved literary source. Motherwell describes discovering Ulysses while on a train ride through Europe in the 1930s. He found himself so absorbed by the “plasticity” of Joyce’s way with language that it reminded him how, in painting, “the image emerges out of the brush covered with colored mud.” He was so absorbed in Joyce’s book that he ignored the breathtaking European landscape passing around him.
Leave it to a young, aspiring American painter to find the key to his own work within the graphical and musical diction of an Irish novelist whose diminishing eyesight somehow produced the most visually impressive novel of the twentieth century. Buy a copy of Ulysses in paper, while you still can.
Robert Motherwell: Works on Paper 1951-1991 continues at the Paul Kasmin Gallery (515 West 27th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through January 3, 2015.