Rare Editions

It was in the fall of 1995 that Robert Motherwell, the great New York School artist who died in 1991, gained a special place in the hearts and minds of Denver art lovers. That's when the Denver Art Museum worked out a special deal with the Dedalus Foundation, which controls Motherwell's estate, to acquire twenty works by the artist at the discounted price of $1 million ("Holy Motherwell," November 15, 1995). The Motherwell paintings, collages and drawings were on display for more than a year at the DAM, but they've now been stowed away in crates. Some are in storage, while others are on their way to a show in Barcelona.

But though there currently are no Motherwells on display at the DAM, the museum's status as a Motherwell center has led the Dedalus Foundation to choose a Denver gallery--Robischon--to serve as one of only four in the nation to display and sell the artist's works on paper, some of which have never before been seen in public. The happy result is the show Robert Motherwell: Master Prints, a collection of 21 prints that demonstrates Motherwell's interest in techniques ranging from etching and lithography to silkscreen.

Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1915 and raised in California, but he came to prominence in New York City, where he moved in 1940 to continue his graduate studies in art history at Columbia University (he had previously attended Stanford and Harvard). At Columbia he came under the influence of legendary art historian Meyer Schapiro, who urged Motherwell to devote himself full-time to painting and who introduced the twenty-something artist to the many great European modern masters who were sitting out World War II in New York.

Motherwell was one of a generation of artists working in New York who in the 1950s developed the abstract-expressionist style that would soon take the art world by storm. Championing an approach that put special emphasis on the act of painting, Motherwell and his contemporaries--including Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline--applied pigments in splashes, runs, drips, smudges, scratches and smears. It was all done spontaneously, allegedly through the unerring guidance of the artist's subconscious.

The style of the abstract expressionists doesn't lend itself well to printmaking; making prints, after all, typically relies on reproduction, a very non-spontaneous process. In fact, Motherwell is the only first-generation abstract expressionist to have created a sizeable body of prints. Though he was better known for his paintings, printmaking was a principal vehicle for the artist, especially later in his career. He created more than 400 print editions, executing them at some of the country's finest workshops, as well as on the etching press he kept in his New York studio.

The prints on display at Robischon are mostly from the 1970s and 1980s and showcase a number of currents in Motherwell's oeuvre. "Summer Light Series: Pauillac #1," a lithograph with collage and embossing from 1973, is a print of the type Motherwell made famous in the 1960s. Bold geometric shapes--a rectangle, some bars and a circle--are laid out in a loose relationship. The white rag-base paper has been marked with black, light brown and the distinctive dusty blue that's sometimes called "Motherwell blue." The circle, which occupies the top center of the picture, surrounds like a halo a torn Chateau Latour wine label. The label isn't the only collage element; the light-brown field that suggests the broken rectangle is made up of several cut pieces of drawing paper.

Motherwell often incorporated labels or other pre-printed pieces of paper into his prints. These found objects were typically European in origin, often from France, and they recalled the early-twentieth-century work of School of Paris artists like Picasso. Alone among the core abstract expressionists, Motherwell directly acknowledged the ideas he borrowed from Paris, and he's often seen as the most European-influenced member of a very American movement.

But French wasn't Motherwell's only foreign language. In the 1975 lithograph and silkscreen "Hermitage," what appears to be a yellow-and-black Russian vodka label is actually a photographic reproduction placed in the corner of a deep-red printed field. The same technique is seen in "St. Michel (State 1)," a 1975-79 lithograph in which a photo of a Belgian cigarette pack has been blown up through the reproductive process.

Motherwell's interest in cigarette packs and wine labels reflects not only his interest in smoking and drinking, but also his pursuit of geometric abstraction. The labels and logos, often placed against strikingly spare backgrounds, are reminders that during his long career he created abstract-expressionist works that paid homage to the expressionists' New York School heirs, the minimalists. For instance, in "Mexican Night II," a 1984 etching and aquatint, black spattered expressionist lines are used to enclose a minimalist geometric arrangement done in red and white.

Of course, Motherwell never abandoned abstract expressionism; at the same time he was tipping his hat to minimalism, he continued to address the concerns of his signature style. Two strong examples are "Gesture II (State I)" and "Gesture III," a pair of etchings and aquatints from 1976-77 that call to mind Motherwell's great gestural paintings of the 1950s and '60s, like the DAM's "Africa, No. 2." In "Gesture II," a brown field of aquatint subtly sets off a drippy black line in etching; "Gesture III" lays an airy tangle of black squiggles across a field of Motherwell blue. Both are among the smaller prints included at Robischon, but they're two of the finest in the show.

Like many American artists and writers, Motherwell was fascinated by the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, and beginning in 1940 and continuing until his death, he made pieces dedicated to the short-lived Spanish Republic, whose fall to Francisco Franco's fascists served as a preview of the coming world war. The DAM has acquired the last painting in the series, the "Elegy to the Spanish Republic (#172)," and the Robischon show includes several 1980s prints that continue the "Elegy" series. These works feature organic shapes that are linked horizontally; the forms are most often painted black against a white ground. The Robischon show includes "Running Elegy," from 1982, an etching and aquatint. Here the title may refer to the drips of ink that trail off the center of the forms, suggesting movement.

Two other prints, though nominally not a part of the "Elegy" series, nonetheless highlight the same formal approach. "Black With No Way Out" seems particularly akin to the "Elegy" series. In this horizontal print, a roughly square black form with just a little red coming through at the top is set against a heavy black gestural composition; both stand out on the white paper. "Three Figures," a lithograph from 1989, features a luxuriously printed red ink field dominated by three large vertical forms executed in a rich black.

More than half of the prints in the Robischon show date from the 1980s. This reflects not only the fact that the estate no longer holds many prints from the artist's early years, but also that Motherwell increasingly worked at the press during the print-crazed 1980s. As a result, the artist, who turned seventy in 1985, found true financial success for the first time in his career.

And Motherwell was still at the top of his game aesthetically the year he died. Two prints from 1991, the large-format lithographs "Black Cathedral" and "Black for Mozart," are among the best pieces in the show. Their liberal use of black might be seen to symbolize death if black hadn't been one of Motherwell's favorite shades all along. But the principal form in each--an ominous black arch evocative of church windows and of tombstones--does seem to presage his death.

The Robischon Gallery, now in its 21st year, has a reputation for presenting thoughtful and compelling art shows. But rarely are these expectations as fully satisfied as they are with Robert Motherwell: Master Prints.

Robert Motherwell: Master Prints, through March 9 at the Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 298-7799.