Critical Reflections: Robert Motherwell

William Shearburn Gallery<br /> 129 Wests San Francisco Street, Santa Fe

Date July 31, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Publication THE magazine

Categories Performing Arts


Untitled (Orange and Brown), an oil-on-paper work from 1963 by Robert Motherwell, is a steal at $65,000.

Keep it around for a little while, 'cause it really is a great little gem of a painting. Or just flip it at auction. Preferably in Europe, so you can get paid in Euros.

William Shearburn Gallery is one of five galleries worldwide through which the Dedalus Foundation-founded by Robert Motherwell-distributes his unsold production. Motherwell was extremely prolific, and when he died, in 1991, he left many paintings and a large body of prints. He'd printed 435 separate editions. Some of this work has never been to market or exhibited.

Looking at Motherwell today, he seems gigantic. Along with Pollock, De Kooning, and Frankenthaler, he's one of the pillars of modern art and the art economy, but he happened long enough ago to still have the lingering penumbra of the school of Paris and its associated roots in bohemian Romanticism, which the war transplanted to New York via post-Cubists and Surrealists fleeing Europe.

Motherwell's erudition and Ivy League education were essential to forming Abstract Expressionism in New York's climate of transplanted Europeans and the glaring agony of World War II. He was well-off, well-read, and well-spoken. And like many artists and intellectuals of his generation he was fascinated with Eastern philosophy.

This exhibition shows Motherwell in search of and achieving an abstract aesthetic in a way derived from his reading of Zen. As Pollock would find inspiration in Native American sand painting, so the Beat poets and Ab-Exers would look to Buddhism. The lingering strains of Romanticism still heard in mid-century Modernism are enough that, prior to Pop, the artist is still on a private mystic search at the margins of industrialized culture. Post-Pop market forces are acknowledged and legitimized as being of equal, if not greater, importance. Motherwell saw, over the course of his life, art and business move into closer accord, and he became one of a handful of celebrity artists of his generation to liberate pure abstraction as an expressive vehicle in painting, and ultimately to be well paid for it.

Looking back, he straddles a transitional mid-century domain where he appears to be both artist-shaman and artist-businessperson simultaneously, without conflict. No van Gogh, Motherwell lived well, even in the beginning when bohemia was being housed in cold-water flats. To Motherwell's credit, painting was more important than all that noise; he mastered an elegiac abstraction that incorporated monumental brushstrokes, increasingly simple compositions, and a sense of the primacy of search and experiment-a grasp of the moment in an uncertain world.

The real reason you like the painting Untitled (Orange and Brown) is because you fantasize that you see Frankenthaler's influence, and Frankenthaler is your really truly favorite Abstract Expressionist, no? In this small piece, her lyricism and her spontaneity somehow come through Motherwell. Maybe it was never exhibited because Motherwell saw that too. The sense of this daydreaming state of association sparked by the piece is a quality that the work of both artists share. That the daydream concerns them and their mythic art-world statures is all the more testament to the longevity of the branding accomplished by signature style. Pure Motherwell, you imagine this piece to be a more honest Je t'aime, unmarred by verbal declarations.

"Paint never lies,"€ is something painters like to say.

An acceptance of the expressive truth of the physical possibilities of paint and the role of chance were also being explored in postwar-Japan by the Gutai movement (concrete art) in entirely different ways. Would talk at the legendary Cedar Tavern on University Place have contained rumors of Wrestling with Mud by Shiraga Kazuo, who put the action in action painting? Combining the performative aspect of Zen with Surrealist automatism, Motherwell found a way to reach the unconscious gesture.

Abstract Expressionism is an attempt to come to terms with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen on the level of an abstract aesthetics associated with the traditions of both Europe and Japan. Abstract Expressionist painting, then, was the first truly global art movement. Maybe this is why he sells so well overseas. The synthesis of cultural impulses around 1940 to 1960 that formed

Ab-Ex painting, including the newfound prosperity in the art world in the United States, paved the way for Pop and the current postmodern merger of artmaking and business. Executives are up all night crunching numbers and committing suicide while the artists go to the gym and drink wheatgrass juice. Anti-bourgeois sentiment has run aground on a capitalist-materialist shore. The president wants you

to shop.

Still there is some solace. Untitled (Orange and Brown) is a thing of beauty, as is this show. And thanks to Dedalus and William Shearburn Gallery, you can pick up a signed print by Robert Motherwell, one of the late, great last bohemians, for only $3,500, whenever you get the yen.