Robert Motherwell: “On the Humanism of Abstraction”

By LIZ HAGER

Robert Motherwell, Summertime in Italy (with Blue), 1965-1966
Lithograph (zinc) in blue on Arches Cover paper, 30 x 22 inches
(National Gallery, Washington)

Before an introduction to Meyer Schapiro convinced him to devote his life to painting, Robert Motherwell studied philosophy and aesthetics at Stanford and Harvard. Thus, it is no suprirse that Motherwell became one of the few first-generation Abstract Expressionists who regularly made information about his art and theory publicly available through frequent lectures, writing and interviews.

He considered his essay “On the Humanism of Abstraction” (The Writings of Robert Motherwell) to be one of the most philosophical texts he ever wrote. To my mind, this essay is one of the most accessible and convincing statements I have come across on the nature of abstraction in painting.

What follows is a long excerpt from the essay.

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1954
Oil on unprimed canvas, 93 x 56 3/16 inches
(Yale University Art Gallery

As the dictionary says, the purpose of abstraction in any field —art, science, mathematics—is, out of incredible richness and complexity and detail of reality, “to separate,” “to select from” the complexity of reality that which you want to emphasize, or to deal with. . . it is not feasible to re-create the Battle of Gettysburg; yet the ultimate aspiration of that naturalistic notion of what a work of art is remains of reproduction of reality itself; hence the popularity of the cinema in the 20th century, as of the novel in the 19th.

Joan Mitchell, Land, 1989
Oil on canvas, overall size (two joined panels): 110 1/4 x 157 1/2 inches
(National Gallery, Washington)

. . . All our forms of communication are abstractions from the whole context of reality.  I have often quoted Alfred North Whitehead in what I think is one of the crucial statements on abstraction, that “the higher the degree of abstraction, the lower the degree of complexity.”  In that sense, mathematical formulae are (ironically) by nature of a lower degree of complexity than a painted surface with three lines, even it it’s an Einsteinian equation. Once one understands that every expression is a form of abstraction, then choices are made in relation to emphasis, i.e., to significance. . .


Amy Sillman, N&V, 2007
Color soft ground etching with soap ground and spit bite aquatints, 35 x 28 inches
Crown Point Press

Once one can get over one’s inherited primitive feeling that what a picture is, is a picture of something in nature, and think instead that a picture is a deliberate choice of a certain degree of abstraction (which in the case of Andrew Wyeth or Norman Rockwell, for example, is a very low degree of abstraction and a relatively high degree of abstraction, or moving from them to, say, Mondrian, a high degree of abstraction and a low degree of complexity), then one begins to view painting in an entirely different way. . .

Irene Rice Pereira, Mecca, 1953
Oil on canvas 40 1/8 x 50 in.
(Smithsonian American Art Museum)

A difficulty for an artist speaking to you (in comparison with a composer or a mime) is that they can give you a performance, and the painter cannot. . . Painting is also a language that is universal by nature, but one highly-sophisticated and elite, in terms of the general run of people. If one is a very skillful abstract painter, it’s difficult for many people to be aware of it. . .

Janet Sobel, Untitled, 1946
Oil on canvas
(Gary Snyder Gallery)

Most people have a prejudice against abstraction in anything. . . And I must say that when I look at an advanced mathematical equation, it’s meaningless to me. I can’t read it, any more than I can read Chinese. But I don’t have a resistance to it for its being abstract, because I regard abstraction as a most powerful weapon. It is also true that abstraction can become so removed from one’s experience—one’s sensed experience—that it become remote from its origins. Most people’s resistance toward abstraction is just that it is remote. . .

Willem de Koonig, Painting, 1948
Enamel and oil on canvas, 42 5/8 x 56 1/8 inches
(Museum of Modern Art, NY)

. . . You see, art is a triangle. Let’s say, in the case of painting—most people think that the triangle is composed of yourself and the canvas and “nature,” and that I, as a painter, look at nature and then stick over there on the canvas what I’m looking at. Actually, the triangle is composed of oneself, the medium and human culture, not brute nature alone, which is but an aspect of culture; the sum total of one’s human experience in relation to one’s culture in painting. So in many ways, rather than looking at a tree, one is playing a game with other painters. . .

Jackson Pollock, Number 13A: Arabesque, 1948
Oil on canvas, 37 x 117 inches
(Yale University Art Gallery)

. . . In painting or music or poetry, one is concerned with how a specific medium functions, and paradoxically, in how it is functioning, the whole human soul is revealed, more than if one tried to paint a “picture” of the soul. It’s one’s soul that’s being communicated, how one feels about the character of reality. . . In the end, more hits your heart and your gut than can a photograph of a massacre or a photograph of two lovers embracing and so on, because abstract art. . . can convey feeling in its “essence” (in the Platonic sense) in a way that “naturalism” cannot: it has far too many extraneous details, and loses its emphasis, its focus. . .

Agnes Martin, Water Flower, 1964
Pen and white and red ink(?) with gray wash, 11 7/8 x 11 15/16 inches
(National Gallery of Art, Washington)

. . .In this sense, abstract art is active and decisive, not passive and undifferentiated, and only becomes remote, by definition, when it becomes too distant from its original discriminations among the complexities of concrete reality.

Wider Connections
Mary Ann Caws—Robert Motherwell: What Art Holds
Hello Monday: “The Rothko Chapel

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4 Responses to “Robert Motherwell: “On the Humanism of Abstraction””

  1. Liz, thank you for this wonderful post on abstract art. It gives me fuel and inspiration to keep making my abstract pieces.
    Susan

  2. Very instructive again… And so stimulating to read some words that explain so well what one feels : To feel concerned in how the medium functions forces one to be modest and to serve honestly. And it forces to forget one’s ego for the time of “creation”. So for sure, the soul will be revealed… even without any specific will to show it.
    But then, is the boarder between naturalism and abstraction still so obvious, still so important to be reminded?
    I just wonder… Thank you for opening spaces…

  3. Robert Motherwell is one of my artist-also-writer heroes. I am always inspired by the clarity of his thought, no matter the subject. I am not in love with all abstraction (though his work I find particularly emotionally powerful); when I cannot connect with a work of abstraction, I think it is exactly as Motherwell describes, “remote,” or “too distant from its original discriminations among the complexities of concrete reality.”

    As an artist I have come to a greater appreciation for the difficulty in creating abstraction that connects (to me as well as to others). Like Susan, Motherwell inspires me to keep at it.

  4. “If I had to choose between an erudite Aristotle and an unknown ‘soulless’ black slave I would choose the latter.” excerpts from my book on Indian art
    ‘ Mona Lisa does not smile anymore’ (ISBN 978-81-8465-512-4).
    I really appreciate your wonderful site and the Motherwell’s ‘On Humanism of abstraction’. all works are excellent but my heart is held magnetically captive
    by janet Sobel’s ‘Untitled’.
    Accept my humble humility and supplication for such soul touching abstract art on your site.

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