Archive for Robert Motherwell

Robert Motherwell: “On the Humanism of Abstraction”

Posted in Artists Speak, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , on March 29, 2010 by Liz Hager

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

At Five in the Afternoon: Robert Motherwell Meets Federico García Lorca

Posted in Artists Speak, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Poetry with tags , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2009 by Liz Hager

Robert Motherwell, At Five in the Afternoon, 1950, oil on canvas, 3 x 4 feet.

I begin a painting with a series of mistakes. The painting comes out of the correction of mistakes by feeling. I begin with shapes and colors which are not related internally nor to the external world; I work without images. Ultimate unifications come about through modulation of the surface by innumerable trials and errors. The final picture is the process arrested at the moment when what I was looking for flashes into view. My pictures have layers of mistakes buried in them—an X-ray would disclose crimes—layers of consciousness, of willing. They are a succession of humiliations resulting from the realization that only in a state of quickened subjectivity—a freedom from conscious notions, and with what I always suppose to be secondary or accidental colors and shapes—do I find the unknown, which nevertheless I recognize when I come upon it, for which I am always searching. 

The absolute which lies in the background of all my activities of relating seems to retreat as I get on its track; yet the relative cannot exist without some point of support. However, the closer one gets to the absolute, the more mercilessly all the weaknesses of my work are revealed. 

For me the medium of oil painting resists, more strongly than others, content cut off from external relations. It continually threatens, because of its motility and subtlety, to complicate a work beyond the simplicity inherent in a high order of abstraction. I attribute my increasing devotion to oil, lately as against the constructionalism of collage, to a greater involvement in the human world. A shift in one’s human situation entails a shift in one’s technique and subject-matter.

—Robert Motherwell, “Statement,” Motherwell exhibition catalogue at Samuel Kootz Gallery, New York, 1947. 

After receiving his BA degree from Stanford University (1937), Robert Motherwell continued his studies at Harvard, completing one year of a the Ph.D program there. Motherwell dropped out, but in 1940 decided to continue his studies at Columbia University under the tutelage of celebrated art history professor Meyer Shapiro. Shapiro, recognizing Motherwell’s real desire to be a painter, introduced him to emigré painter and writer Kurt Seligmann, who was deeply versed in the tenets of Surrealism. It turned out to be Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta who most actively engaged Motherwell’s intellect, pushing him off on a journey to uncover his own original creative principle. 

A major turning point for Motherwell came in the summer of 1941, which he spent with Matta in Mexico. Matta introduced him to “automatism” (i.e. free association), and this set the painter to a technique he called “artful scribbling.  It became the starting point for all of his future work. Motherwell was intensely intellectual, and the process of accessing spontaneity was a perfect foil to his to impulse to reason. This device tapped into deep subconscious roots; for Motherwell it provided the means of getting to the innermost, or pre-conscious, self from which true creativity sprung.  Motherwell grabbed tightly a hold of the notion that pictures would, to paraphrase Miró, assert themselves under his brush. Through this overarching principle, he succeeded in brilliantly connecting in an unbroken line action painting (i.e.  The New York School) to Surrrealism. 

Perhaps Matta’s even more profound contribution to Motherwell’s development was his enthusiasm for the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca.

The aura of fatality is overwhelming in García Lorca’s 1934 poem “The Goring and the Death.” He repeats the line “at five in the afternoon” 28 times in 52 lines, forecasting the bullfighter’s death with each knell of the repeat. The poem is a metaphor for the Spanish Civil War, and an eerie foreshadowing of García Lorca’s own tragic death two years later at the hands of the Franco’s regime.  

At five in the afternoon 
It was exactly five in the afternoon.
A boy brought the white sheet
at five in the afternoon.
A basketful of lime in readiness
at five in the afternoon.
Beyond that, death and death alone
at five in the afternoon. 

Motherwell’s At Five in the Afternoon (1949) was a prelude to his artistic tour de force, the Elegy to the Spanish Republic series, which eventually came to include some 200 paintings.  Together they are a visual lament for the poet, his bullfighter, and the original Republic of Spain. 

Wider Connections

PBS  “American Masters” on Motherwell

SF MOMA’s Motherwell collection

Robert Motherwell: The Complete Prints

Selected Poems of Frederico García Lorca

Roberto Matta images

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