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HOLY MOTHERWELL!

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.  

Soon after, the Dedalus Foundation contacted DAM with an idea of its own. If the museum were to acquire that many examples, DAM would immediately become a Motherwell center. And with that kind of commitment, it only made sense that the museum should be given a crack at the most significant works remaining in Motherwell's estate, instead of just the warehoused items. The resulting twenty-piece bequest, which will cost DAM $1 million over the next few years, is a magnificent collection that briefly surveys Motherwell's nearly five-decade career and includes historically significant milestones in his oeuvre as well as a handful of masterpieces.

The oldest work acquired by DAM is the 1945 oil on canvas board "Brown Study." The colors are rich and dark--not just brown, but black, blue and red. This painting, which includes straight lines, vertical bars and an egg shape, owes a debt to the influence of Piet Mondrian and to the surrealists. But its most significant attribute is the way it shows Motherwell already attempting to reconcile the geometric with the organic, which was to be his lifelong quest.

The only early Motherwell acquired by DAM that's widely known to aficionados is 1951's casein on butcher paper "Doorway With Figure." Here the composition is completely geometric, but the creep of the paint on the smooth, golden-tan paper gives it an organic feel. Representing the other pole of Motherwell's style is the signature 1953 oil on linen "Abstract Head," one of a series of paintings based on heads completed in the 1950s. The looping black oval with spattered margins occupies nearly the entire picture; formally speaking, it's pure Motherwell, as is the use of color, in this case red vertical lines set against the beige of the raw linen.

Sometime in the 1960s, Motherwell apparently started holding back some of his paintings for posterity. There's no other reason, for instance, why the estate would still have owned "Africa No. 2," a billboard-sized masterpiece from 1964-65. Motherwell must have simply refused to sell it.

"Africa No. 2" follows in the tradition of "Abstract Head," whose core subject matter was the spontaneous painterly gesture. And preserving the feeling for an instantaneous act in a large painting such as "Africa No. 2" is a more difficult problem than it may at first seem. Motherwell solved it by attaching his brushes to broom handles and walking around the canvas, which was laid on the floor. Thus many strokes were brought together to make what looks like only two bold moves on Motherwell's part.

It was in 1967 that Motherwell began the minimalist color-field paintings that gave his career new life. He was inspired to create the paintings, known as the "Open" series, when he saw a small canvas leaning against a larger one. Of the three "Open" pieces DAM has received from Dedalus, "Open No. 13 (In Washed Ochre)," an acrylic on canvas, was the first to be started but was actually finished last--begun in 1969, it wasn't completed until 1970. Like "Africa No. 2," "Open No. 13" is the size of a mural. A light-gold rectangle is laid horizontally across a field of the same color seen in a darker tone. The margins between the two shades have been expressed with a black line. The result is a ten-foot slice of the sublime.

In the much smaller acrylic on canvas "Ochre No. 49," the horizontal rectangle is again at the top of the panel, but this time placed off to one side. And though the color field is again a golden shade, the smaller rectangle is painted a deep, luxurious and heavily worked black.

Black may seem an odd choice for an artist widely considered one of the great colorists of the century. But Motherwell's generous use of black, which he viewed as having the properties of a color (rather than representing the absence of color) is one of his signatures. Other favorite Motherwell hues are red, golden ochre, lots of white and lots of blue. In fact, the artist so often used one particular shade of blue (akin to the powdery color of the sky) that the term "Motherwell blue" is sometimes used to describe it.  

Motherwell incorporates three different blues in the acrylic on canvas "Open No. 82 (The Blue Easel)," not one of which is the famous Motherwell blue. But the trademark shade is seen in generous amounts in the 1973 acrylic/collage "Sand and Sea" and more sparingly in 1974's "The Spartan," an acrylic on canvas board. Motherwell blue seems to have been inspired equally by views of the Mediterranean and the artist's childhood memories of the Pacific, not to mention being the color of a Gauloises cigarette pack--Motherwell's brand and a frequently seen element in his collages (though not among the selections at DAM).

The most famous of all Motherwell creations are the hundreds of studies and major paintings he produced for the "Elegy Series," a body of work begun in the 1940s and completed with the 1990 painting "Elegy to the Spanish Republic With Blood (#172)." That painting has been acquired by the DAM and dedicated to the memory of Lewis Story, who served for decades in various high-ranking museum posts and without whom there would be no Modern and Contemporary department.

The "Elegy Series" demonstrates how certain artistic concerns remained with Motherwell throughout his long career. In the case of "Elegy #172," it's the automatism Motherwell took early on from the surrealists, a process the artist himself later compared to doodling or, more correctly, "artful scribbling." In a 1977 interview with Barbaralee Diamondstein, he stressed that the reason he kept going back to the "Elegy Series" was not to make "yard goods," but to get the composition right once and for all.

Motherwell did get it right. And so did DAM director Sharp when he took such decisive action to acquire this collection. The major financial commitment the museum made constituted a bold move on Sharp's part, says curator Vanderlip. But Sharp clearly understood that the Modern and Contemporary department sorely needed a jump start, which the Dedalus bequest surely provides. Vanderlip makes another claim: that the newly acquired Motherwells are "the most important single acquisition of modern art in the museum's history." She's not exaggerating, even a little bit.


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