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If it's a taste of Manhattan modernism you're craving this fall (and who isn't?) run, do not walk, to Options 3--Robert Motherwell, the Denver Art Museum's exhibit of twenty newly acquired paintings, collages and works on paper from this modern-day giant.
Critics have sometimes dismissed Motherwell's work as too pretty and decorative, and as a result, he's often seen as the lightweight of the abstract expressionist movement. The trouble with this theory is that his paintings just won't cooperate. As the years go by, Motherwell's art keeps looking better and better.
Among the most prominent American artists to emerge during the second half of the twentieth century, Motherwell was a key figure in the New York school--a term he coined--from its birth in the 1940s until his death in 1991. Born and mostly educated on the West Coast, Motherwell went east in 1937 to continue his graduate studies in philosophy at Harvard. By 1940 he was in New York, attending Columbia University and studying with the distinguished art historian Meyer Schapiro.
There couldn't have been a more ideal situation for a young artist than to have been in New York at the time, especially with the entree into the art scene provided by a well-known figure like Schapiro. New York wasn't just the center of American art of the day, it was also a mecca for many of Europe's most important modern artists. That's because the Nazis, among their many peculiarities, loathed modern art and the artists who made it. With the Nazi wolves at the gates of Paris, artists such as Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, Piet Mondrian, Andre Masson and Marcel Duchamp ran for their lives. By the 1940s they were living, working and--more important--exhibiting in New York. And Schapiro knew them all.
It's hard to overstate the positive effects this confluence of events had, not just on Motherwell but on American art itself. Motherwell, who translated and reformulated the lessons of the Europeans, became part of a group of New York painters who came on the scene in the 1940s and by the 1950s dominated world art: the abstract expressionists. Other exponents of the movement included such luminaries as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman.
Abstract expressionist works varied widely from a stylistic standpoint. Much has been written about the painters' shared interest in Jungian psychology, the subconscious, the role of myths and other metaphysical concepts that were in the intellectual air of New York at the time. But what truly connected their work was their individual exploration of the physical properties of paint on a flat surface; their goal, it seemed, was no less than to reveal the very essence of a painting.
When art's cutting edge moved toward pop and minimalism in the 1960s, something interesting happened to the first generation of abstract expressionists. Instead of being relegated to the trash heap of art history, they attained old-master status the way the French Impressionists and Picasso had. And Motherwell was especially well positioned: He had all along created color-field paintings that could be argued to be both abstract expressionist and minimalist at the same time. In the 1960s and the 1970s he led a double life, both as a revered figure from the past and as a vital contemporary artist.
What this acclaim meant in practical terms was that the market value of Motherwell's work, like that of the other abstract expressionists, soared to the stratosphere. Typical prices for his significant pieces ranged well into seven figures, which was marvelous for Motherwell but left public repositories like the DAM (which only began actively acquiring contemporary art in 1978) unable to even think about collecting abstract-expressionist paintings, let alone acquiring an in-depth assortment from a major figure.
So how did DAM pull it off?
Realizing what had happened to the market value of his work, Motherwell established the Dedalus Foundation to administer his estate, with the provision that pieces be made available to public collections for a small fraction of their value. The day after the artist's death in 1991, DAM Modern and Contemporary department head Dianne Vanderlip remembers getting a crack-of-dawn phone call from museum trustee Judy Robbins. It turned out that Robbins was a friend of Dedalus Foundation boardmember Richard Rubin, and she suggested that DAM make a request for a painting or two. When Vanderlip contacted Rubin, she says she was told no decisions had been made concerning the disposition of the works Motherwell had left behind but that when plans were in place, the museum would be contacted.
It was some eighteen months before the foundation finally responded to DAM's request, inviting a delegation from the museum to inspect seventeen Motherwell works that were in storage in a Long Island warehouse and had been selected by Rubin and fellow Dedalus trustees Dore Ashton and Jack Flam. The group from Denver included Vanderlip, DAM director Lewis Sharp and Nancy Tieken, associate curator for the Modern and Contemporary department. The consensus, says Vanderlip, was that the assembled paintings and works on paper were absolutely fabulous. When director Sharp told the foundation representatives that DAM would like all seventeen pieces, there was an audible gasp, not only from Rubin and Flam, but from Vanderlip and Tieken, too--Sharp had also taken them by surprise. Rubin suggested that the visitors from Denver return home and think it over.
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