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In a 1965 letter to poet Frank O’Hara, painter Robert Motherwell mused that “the supreme gift, after light, is scale.” Motherwell had recently completed a seven-by-seventeen-foot painting, called “Dublin, 1916, with Black and Tan.” This vast composition of black, red, blue, and ochre is one of eight mural-sized works featured in Sheer Presence: Monumental Paintings by Robert Motherwell, on view at Kasmin in Chelsea. It’s the first exhibition to focus exclusively on the artist’s sweeping large-scale canvases, which grew, in part, out of the Californian spaciousness of his vision — the Washington-born painter grew up on the Pacific Coast and studied philosophy at Stanford — and the AbEx movement’s postwar humanist optimism, conceived under the sign of the vast American prairie.
The show starts forcefully, with “The Grand Inquisitor” (1989-90), part of Motherwell’s last major series of paintings, “The Hollow Men.” A blobby expanse of ochre dominates the composition, against flat shapes of yellow, vermillion, and black. The tone here is warm, as Motherwell manifestly preferred warm paintings to cool ones, while the deep black, stretching across the bottom, lends the picture plane a tightened solemnity. Palpable anguish permeates the ochre form, which is scrawled with faint charcoal lines. At its majestic size, such unease takes on the gravity of mortal terror.
Motherwell painted “The Grand Inquisitor” in 1989, two years before his death. Its title derives from The Brothers Karamazov, which, coincidentally, Dostoevsky wrote two years before his own death in 1881. Dostoevsky’s story offers an ambiguous response to the conflict between reason and faith. In it, a leader from the Spanish Inquisition, who views human nature through a kind of nihilistic realism, confronts Jesus and accuses him of burdening humankind with a freedom of belief that they can’t handle. Instead of responding directly, Jesus gives the grand inquisitor a soft kiss on his “bloodless, aged lips.”
As he painted “The Grand Inquisitor,” Motherwell may have been grappling with this tension between faith and reason: like Matisse, who considered art a private religion, Motherwell believed a painting could help the viewer reach spiritual transcendence. At a time when the art world has largely rejected that line of thinking as pompous or naive, the monumentality of “The Grand Inquisitor” testifies to the aging artist’s relentless and perhaps lonesome commitment to the emotional power of his medium, which for him remained, unwaveringly, “a means for getting at the infinite background of feeling.”
Scale also allows for greater experiments with proportion. Such experiments underlie Motherwell’s Open series, which originated from the artist’s chance observation of one vertical canvas leaning against a larger one. Kasmin is showing three examples from this series: “Open No.60: In Mottled Brown and Green” (1968-70), “Open No.97: The Spanish House” (1969) and “Open in Gray with White Edge” (1971). In these nearly monochromatic panels, meticulously placed and precariously drawn lines recall glimpses of windows and doors. They’re painted at a human scale, with immense expanses of color fields, creating a visceral sense of entries, passageways, and architectural spaces; you feel you could walk into the canvas.
Sheer Presence offers a powerful look back at a painter for whom the size of the gesture spoke for magnitude of feeling — a painter who argued that “to choose emotion rather than intellection can be an intellectual position.” By focusing on a simple formal quality — size — Kasmin reminds us of that crowning discovery of Abstract Expressionism: painting’s potential for an emotional gravitas that edges toward the transcendental.
Sheer Presence: Monumental Paintings by Robert Motherwell continues at Kasmin (509 W 27th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 18.