Not The Readymade Modernist After All: A revisionist take on early Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell: Early Paintings at Paul Kasmin Gallery
September 7 to October 28, 2017
293 Tenth Avenue at 27th Street,
New York City, paulkasmingallery.com
Assessment of an artist’s early work can be a tricky business. Often this period will have been manipulated to cohere with an overarching narrative associated with the artist, with focus placed on unearthing traces of what would later epitomize the mature style. An entirely different problem, however, plagues the reception of early Robert Motherwell.
Motherwell took a circuitous path to becoming an artist, one peppered with forays into academia and punctuated by multiple decisions to change his course of study to assuage his hankering, though often repressed, desire to envelop himself in modern art. Motherwell’s abandoned doctoral dissertation has had a lasting impact on scholarly treatment of his early work. The enduring credo has it that Motherwell bypassed traditional juvenilia and was instead in possession of a mature style and decided artistic philosophy at the very outset of his career.
When he graduated from Stanford in 1937 with a philosophy degree, Motherwell immediately enrolled in the philosophy graduate program at Harvard. He preferred courses on art theory and aesthetics, and elected to research Eugène Delacroix at the University of Grenoble, France. He soon moved to Paris, however, where he pursued his interest in contemporary art, rubbing shoulders with members of the intelligentsia and studying firsthand the art of modern masters. Returning to the United States, he switched gears and entered the graduate program in art history at Columbia, run by the fabled Meyer Schapiro. Witnessing his student’s primary interest in creating his own work, Schapiro introduced Motherwell to the downtown émigré Surrealist crowd. Despite his youth and unmistakably American characteristics, Motherwell became fast friends with its luminaries. He made a transformative trip to Mexico, for instance, with Roberto Matta, by the end of which he would come to consider himself an artist.
The Mexican paintings are where Kasmin’s Robert Motherwell Early Paintings begins. Remarkably, this is only the second-ever exhibition of the artist’s early paintings.
What’s more, Kasmin tackles a body of work that has been overshadowed by Motherwell’s critically lauded early explorations into collage and automatic drawing. Despite the commercial appeal of paintings and their prominence in Motherwell’s later career, his early paintings have long played second fiddle to artistic production in other media. It is only with the Elegy to the Spanish Republic series beginning in 1957 that Motherwell garnered a reputation as a painter. Kasmin’s exhibition therefore responds to a challenging mandate: to elevate both period and medium against received opinion.
Shining an isolated light on this body of work, with the help of impressive loans from the Dedalus Foundation, the exhibition has a rejuvenating effect. The downside of claiming that Motherwell arrived as an artist fully formed is the corollary assumption that early endeavors suffered from a lack of progress, not bearing the fruits of trial-and-error process that informs most artists. Instead, the 18 works selected for the exhibition, which emphasize serial groupings, attest to the radical development of the artist between the 1940s and ‘50s as we see him grapple with a cadre of influences from Surrealism and psychic automatism to Piet Mondrian and Joan Miró—retaining, rejecting, and remediating as he saw fit.
The most instructive example of his painterly development during this period is the triumvirate of works inspired by Mondrian. While the highlight of the first room of this two-room show might appear to be the first-ever public display of Three Figures, c. 1941 alongside his first complete painting, La Belle Mexicaine (Maria), 1941––a powerful figurative pairing given prominent gallery placement––moments of curatorial inspiration lay in other corners of the gallery. Recuerdo de Coyoacán, 1942, The Sentinel, 1942, and The Spanish Prison (Window), 1943-44 result from his encounter with Mondrian at the Dutchman’s first US solo exhibition at Valentine Dudensing Gallery in 1942. Motherwell was struck by Mondrian’s interrogation of the visual field as a zone to be simultaneously flattened and bisected.
Over time, the works grow progressively distant from the canonical grid paintings as each iteration allowed Motherwell to determine which aspects of Mondrian’s practice were pertinent to his program. The latest work, The Spanish Prison (Window)—its title referencing the Civil War—draws upon De Stijl’s detached, non-objective optical theory while distorting its anti-humanist position by introducing a quasi-figurative, imprisoned form. Blowing open Mondrian’s hermetic grid, this is a body contained and deconstructed by the confines of a vertical field.
More than a grouping of like works, positing these three paintings as a series demonstrates Motherwell’s preoccupation with variegating motifs as his central mode of artistic refinement. Furthermore, this trio challenges its very ontological classification as belonging to a discrete medium by virtue of the way in which the works reify the collagist practice that infiltrated Motherwell’s approach to painting. Linking disparate blocks of color amidst vibrant swaths of paint, Motherwell shows the capacity of paint to behave like torn and rejoined pieces of paper.
Nearing the end of the 1940s and delving into the 1950s, the second room of the exhibition charts another development in early Motherwell, his progressively becoming more abstract. Orange Personage, 1947 is situated against the back wall of the gallery, mirroring the placement of the figurative work La Belle Mexicaine (Maria) in the previous room. This application of parallel structure to the exhibition space clarifies the conceptual distance between the two figurative approaches: in the later work, Motherwell uses the vertical thrust of the canvas and simplistic geometric forms to describe the human form, drastically departing from the figurative, though abstractly obscured, painting of his first wife.
The revelation in Orange Personage, however, is to be had up-close. Covered with sand—likely from the beaches of East Hampton where the artist maintained a home—the work possesses visceral charge and local specificity. Incorporating found objects, natural and manufactured, into his works was a trademark of Motherwell’s collages. Living somewhere between painting, collage, and readymade, Orange Personage dissolves the boundaries of medium specificity.
While an exhibition of early paintings by a famous Abstract Expressionist might not seem anything out of the ordinary, this show is subtly subversive. Instead of simply making an argument for Motherwell’s painterly abilities, the collagist practice, serial pairings, and quotations of different artists at play here challenge notions that this is a show about paintings, a stylistically homogenous period, or Motherwell alone.