"Untitled," by Robert Motherwell, acrylic on paper and Mylar.
"Untitled," by Robert Motherwell, acrylic on paper and Mylar.

Slights of Hand

There's only a couple of weeks left to catch the current attractions at the Robischon Gallery: three superlative solos, each devoted to an internationally famous artist.

In the pair of spaces bracketing the front doors is Robert Motherwell: Early Drawings, 1963-1976; in the pair of spaces beyond, there's the smaller Richard Serra: New Prints; and in the chic Viewing Room Gallery is an untitled, ad hoc show devoted to Judy Pfaff.

Motherwell is a museum-quality endeavor filled with works on paper by one of the giants of twentieth-century abstract art. A serious exhibit with incredible drawings, it's not the kind of thing that is normally found in a typical commercial gallery, but then again, Robischon is hardly typical. The drawings have been installed in compact arrangements overseen by gallery co-director Jennifer Doran (who is married to Jim Robischon, the other co-director).


Robert Motherwell: Early Drawings, 1963-1976, Richard Serra: New Prints, and drawings by Judy Pfaff

Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street

Through March 3, 303-298-7788

Motherwell was among the principal proponents of abstract expressionism, the mid-century American painting movement that has come to be seen as one of the pinnacles of twentieth-century art. The story of how it developed here is a familiar one. As a result of the rise of the Nazis in Germany, many of the greatest modern artists working in Europe fled to New York in the late 1930s and early 1940s. This movement made the Big Apple the world's art capital, displacing Paris. These modernists not only feared the terror of war, but they knew they had been identified categorically as enemies of the Nazis. In New York, however, their every move was hailed, and the results of their aesthetic experiments were widely exhibited and absorbed by a generation of young American artists, including Motherwell.

The method employed by Motherwell, and by some of the other abstract expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock, relied on spontaneous actions by the painter. These gestures, in which paint was literally flung at a canvas, were believed to reveal the artist's innermost feelings. Actually, the paintings were about the paint itself. It was a brilliant discovery. In the right hands, the results were powerful painterly images of an unimaginably high quality.

In the last few years, there have been several Motherwell shows at Robischon. This relationship between Robischon and Motherwell's estate -- the artist died in 1991 -- is not unrelated to the considerable Motherwell holdings at the Denver Art Museum. Motherwell is one of the only modern or contemporary artists, and the only New York School artist (a term coined by the artist himself), who is seen in depth in the DAM's permanent collection. This happy situation dates to 1995, when the museum purchased a representative group of twenty of the artist's emblematic pieces. Taken together, these paintings and collages neatly survey Motherwell's fifty-year career. The DAM's Motherwells came from the Dedalus Foundation, the official keeper of the artist's flame. The foundation has also loaned the pieces in the Robischon show; unlike the DAM's Motherwells, however, the ones at Robischon are for sale.

The Robischon show gets under way with two elegantly assembled groups of drawings, each consisting of a double-hung row of eight pieces clustered closely together. All sixteen of these ink-on-rice-paper drawings are from "Lyric Suite," which the artist created in 1965. Though quite small, they nevertheless convey the same incredible charisma as his world-famous paintings. Most of these drawings -- none of which have individual titles -- are done substantially or, in some cases, completely in black ink used sparingly against the white paper. In some, red tints peek out from below the black, while in others, the red ink is used in bold strokes that are widely separated from the black. Motherwell's gestural technique and spontaneity are captured fully here; the drawings sport smudged forms and lots of dripped and spattered ink. That must be why abstract expressionism is also called action painting.

This feature is seen in one of the finest drawings in the show, "Automatism #4," from 1965. This piece is really an oil painting on paper. Motherwell attacked the paper with a couple of thick black diagonal lines set off by a couple of gloppy horizontal ones. Running across the bottom is a swath of exquisite light blue, one of several shades collectively known as 'Motherwell blue.' On the other side of the entry is a group of the artist's signature graphic gestures. Stylistically, they somehow refer not only to Picasso's bold sense of line, but also to the very different quality associated with Oriental calligraphy. A good example of this is in "Untitled," an acrylic on paper and Mylar from the 1970s.

In addition to his classic style, Motherwell also delved into color-field painting, which borders on minimalism and is, in many ways, its predecessor. (Motherwell, incidentally, was married for a time to Helen Frankenthaler, one of the pioneers of 1960s color-field painting.) "Open Study No. 5," from 1968, in charcoal and acrylic on paper, exemplifies this separate, nearly geometric, manner that is anything but spontaneous or gestural.

In the remaining spaces in the main gallery is the second show, Serra. Motherwell's "Open Study No. 5" is a perfect transition; while it hints at minimalism, the Serras reach beyond it.

Serra, who began exhibiting his work in the 1960s, is principally known as a major New York School sculptor responsible for monumental minimalist pieces in which unadorned sheets of metal lean precariously against one another. But he has also created a separate though closely associated body of prints. A small group of these are on view here, all of them pulled at the famed Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles, one of the world's most respected printmakers.

The first pieces that come into view are a pair of large prints from 1985, "Patience" and "Tujunga Blacktop." Each is almost entirely composed of a fairly unified black field. The fields go nearly to the margins of the papers, but their shape has been distorted. The resulting forms seem to lean into or out of the two-dimensional plane of the prints. The effect is similar to that seen in Serra's sculptures. Both prints are color paint stick and silkscreen on paper. The black fields in both are printed in the same complicated multi-toned hue and so dark they seem to suck in the light from around them.

The other Serra prints date from the late 1990s. In several, he uses circular or oval shapes. In "Foul Bite," a color etching from 1996, a flattened oval is placed across the center of the paper. The uneven and trailing line Serra uses is not too different from the kind of line Motherwell employed, and with a print like "Foul Bite," we can readily see why the gallery put the superficially disparate artists together.

The third show, which highlights the work of Judy Pfaff, consists of pieces culled from the highly acclaimed exhibit, held at Robischon's last fall, devoted to Pfaff's recent three-dimensional drawings. They are multimedia drawings that include an array of non-art materials, including leaves preserved in acrylic resin. The densely composed drawings are crammed with elements; only on closer examination does their Oriental theme become apparent. Found Asian images from magazines are used liberally, as are calligraphy stamps. And for good measure, Pfaff has used Chinese red as the predominant color.

Pfaff's compositions fill every part of her drawings, going right up to the edges. Appropriately, the drawings have been framed by the artist herself, who extends her compositions out onto the moldings by painting with pigments and metal leaf.

In "Untitled," one of two monumental drawings, she has used oil stick, encaustic acrylic resin, ink and acrylic paint on photos adhered to rice paper. As if this weren't enough, she has also burned and scorched parts of the drawing. "Chrysanthemum," the other monumental drawing here, is also spectacular; the flower of the title has been abstractly reinforced by the composition itself, which includes flowers and flower-like forms.

In a way, it could be argued that Motherwell's gestural approach led to Serra's alternate -- though also strangely gestural -- approach. And the same is true of the Pfaffs. In fact, Pfaff was the student of a minimalist comrade of Serra's, Al Held, and she responded to his less-is-more philosophy by rejoining it with her own more-is-more technique. By combining the three artists, Robischon has represented three distinct phases of the New York School.

If only the gallery had thrown in some Warhols, it would have told pretty much the whole story of American art since the Second World War.


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