icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



Only last autumn, when I was reviewing the exhibition of collages from the 1940s by Robert Motherwell at the Guggenheim, I was wishing the show also included his paintings from the same period. Now I have gotten my wish, in an intriguing and inspiring show at The Guild Hall in East Hampton that focuses most of its energies upon Motherwell’s early paintings, but also with enough in the way of collages and related media so that the viewer can see how the one relates to the other.

The show is “Robert Motherwell: The East Hampton Years, 1944-1952” (through October 13). It was organized by the independent critic and curator, Phyllis Tuchman, and Tuchman is largely responsible for the exemplary catalog, though her own illuminating essay is complemented by another from Catherine Craft, and a chronology by Tim Clifford . Exceptionally well-installed, this exhibition occupies both galleries of The Guild Hall, with earlier work in the gallery to the left of the entrance, and later work to the right.

As is, perhaps, not surprising in chronicling the progress of an “emerging” abstract artist, the earlier work is more disparate and sometimes (at least) vaguely representational, while the later work is (sometimes) much more consistent and (at least vaguely) more abstract.

If you want symmetry and elegance, turn right, right away, as you enter the lobby of this venerable art gallery/theater. If you want the mystery of a master --or a monarch--just emerging from his chrysalis, turn left first. But appearances can be deceptive—as not quite all the pictures in the left hand gallery are earlier—and not quite all of the pictures in the right hand gallery are later.

Before we go any further, I should warn Motherwell partisans that, although I enjoyed this show a lot, it is still not mature Motherwell or abstract expressionism. Considering the attention that early works by Pollock, de Kooning, Gottlieb & Rothko have received, it’s high time to pay the same attention to Motherwell’s early work, but, as I consider all the early work by Pollock, Gottlieb and Rothko nothing more than late surrealism anyway, I feel free to apply this same label to Motherwell’s earliest work.

His particular contribution was to add Matisse to the mix, and to integrate the idea of collage, but in retrospect, the collages in the Guggenheim's show more nearly attain the status of abstraction than do the earlier paintings at The Guild Hall, and the later paintings here look surprisingly like collages.

Again, this is nothing new for the course. The most adventurous work that de Kooning had done, prior to the end of the 1940s, was tepid imitations of post-cubist Picasso, and, as for Arshile Gorky, much as I admire his work, he never got past surrealism either (killing himself, as he did, so young).


Born in 1915, Motherwell was the baby among the greats of the first generation of great abstract expressionists (Pollock had been born in 1912, and Ad Reinhardt in 1913; Theodoros Stamos didn’t come along until 1922, but, although he was already exhibiting in the 1940s, it’s arguable that he belongs among the greats).

Motherwell also seems to have been the most affluent of the abstract expressionists, as the son of a West Coast banker. Although his father lost a lot of money early in the Great Depression of the 1930s, he subsequently recouped it. He was dubious about his son’s choice of a career as an artist, but gave him a modest stipend, as least when young Robert was just starting out. According to Catherine Craft, he left the artist $7,000 when he died in the mid-1940s (equal to about $96,000 in today's money).

Motherwell was the most educated of the abstract expressionists, having studied at Stanford, Harvard and Columbia (while at Harvard, he managed to meet up with the mathematician-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, and at Columbia, he studied most notably with the art historian, Meyer Schapiro. I can recall him telling me that handwritten notes in the margins of one of Whitehead’s books started him on his way toward abstract painting – abstraction being a mathematical and philosophical concept as well as a painterly practice).

Motherwell was the most literate of the abstract expressionists, having lectured, given many interviews, written many essays and edited “The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology” (1951), as well as having co-edited (with Harold Rosenberg) the one issue of “Possibilities,” an important little magazine (1948).

Upon the basis of the few conversations I had with Motherwell, I would agree with those who say that he was the most articulate of the abstract expressionists (certainly much more so than de Kooning¸ the only other member of that generation I ever had the pleasure of interviewing).

I had my most memorable experience of Motherwell’s eloquence when he talked to me about how so many of the first-generation abstract expressionists made it through World War II without getting drafted and killed.

Motherwell himself was exempted from military service for physical reasons—he had bad asthma. But in many other cases, he said, these artists lived in and around Greenwich Village, and also got exempted by their local draft boards for mental reasons--as the doctors who examined them were also local Village people. These doctors knew that good artists made poor soldiers, so they would ask them leading questions, like “You don’t want to be cannon fodder, do you?”


As the title of the show at The Guild Hall indicates, it is dedicated to presenting Motherwell as a local—Long Island-- artist, and so he was, off and on, for the period covered. For a while, he even inhabited two modern buildings in East Hampton – one a house, the other a studio. Both had been designed for him by the French émigré architect, Pierre Chareau.

Both house and studio incorporated U.S. military surplus prefabricated Quonset huts. These “huts” seem to have been in vogue among modernist architects after World War II, because a) they were very much in the less-is-more, functional mode—and b) they were a great bargain.

(I believe all this is so because North Country School, which I attended as a child, was in 1947 just adding its second modern building, featuring a Quonset hut to house a gym. This building was designed by Douglas Haskell who, as editor of Architectural Record, knew what was new in the field at that moment.)

Although neither of Motherwell’s two buildings still exist, this exhibition includes some fine photographs by Alistair Gordon of the house (as well as the cottage that Chareau built for himself nearby). But of much more interest are the Motherwells on view. There are 14 oils, 14 watercolors and other works on paper, one “mixed media,” and one small (15” x 20 “) casein and graphite on paperboard entitled “At Five in the Afternoon.”

This last – with three vertical bands of black interspersed with three black ovals, all on a field of white -- constitutes the link between the early work in this show, and Motherwell’s later and most famous image, the “Elegies to the Spanish Republic,” an image that he was to explore more than 100 times in later years.

The original “At Five in the Afternoon” was meant to illustrate a poem by Rosenberg in the second issue of “Possibilities,” but that second issue was never published. The title, “At Five in the Afternoon,” refers to another poem, this one by the Spaniard, Federico Garcia Lorca. Garcia Lorca’s poem was an elegy for a great Spanish matador who was fatally gored in a bullring (I would assume at five in the afternoon).

From an intellectual point of view, it’s worth noting that this is one of many instances where the Spanish element enters into Motherwell’s early titles, and also the element of the funereal, though it would not be until the 1950s that the two elements were combined into one: an elegy to the Spanish Republic.


I wonder how many Americans today even know why Motherwell chose this theme, of a funeral dirge to the Spanish Republic? As far as most of them might know, Spain is a constitutional monarchy, but in the early 1930s, the country was a republic. It was also a democracy, with a popularly-elected government, and a pretty radical and somewhat chaotic republic, too, with churches being burned by anti-clerical vigilantes or at least having their powers regulated by the government, all along with a certain amount of socialism and nationalization.

Then in 1936, groups within the military – which eventually coalesced under the leadership of Generalissimo Francisco Franco – decided to overthrow the republic. Thus started the Spanish Civil War.

It went on for three bloody years, with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy sending aid to Franco and his Falange party (more broadly known as the Nationalists), while the Soviet Union and Mexico sent aid to the Loyalists (also known as the Republicans). There were atrocities on both sides (though fewer in Loyalist territory). In 1939, Franco won and established a dictatorship in close collaboration with the Church. The republic --and democracy along with it--was dead.

Spain stayed neutral throughout World War II and Franco remained in power until 1975. Then he died, leaving a constitutional monarchy in his place. Today, Spaniards vote to elect their leaders once again, but nobody could have foreseen such a peaceful outcome while the civil war was going on. In the 1930s, Spain was still a poor and largely agrarian country, with a large & often radical lower class and a small & often conservative upper class, while a middle class, by and large, had yet to develop. By 1975, the country had industrialized, and the middle class was larger, more prosperous, and better able to mediate between upper and lower classes.

My own admittedly dim memories of the Spanish republic are conditioned by my progressive childhood. My mother had a song book with an angry anti-Franco song in it, “Los cuatro generales” (there's a very moving illustrated version of this on YouTube, if you want to google it). And one of my classmates in junior year of high school at Dalton was a niece of Garcia Lorca’s. He had been arrested and seems to have been killed by the Nationalists, so my classmate and her parents had fled Spain.

They were living a poverty-stricken exile existence in New York, but by our senior year (1951-52) they had been given back the home in Spain which the Nationalists had appropriated, so they were able to return (or so one of our classmates has told me). The niece turned up for our 50th class reunion, in 2002. She and her current family were living peaceably in Madrid.

Officially, the U.S. (along with France and England) were neutral during the Spanish Civil War, but many younger Americans, including Motherwell, were very much angered and upset by it (it was a liberal era in the U.S., too, with many Americans even further to the left of center than Motherwell probably was). Worse still was the fact that the wrong side was winning the war--and subsequently won. As the artist once said to me, the Spanish Civil War was the beginning of World War II for young men like himself, and they all wanted to enlist and fight on the side of the Loyalists.

Few of them did, to be sure, and Motherwell was among the many that didn’t. I can’t remember what reason he gave when we were discussing this, but the passion in his voice told me how much the tragic fate of the Spanish Republic had meant to him nonetheless, and helped to explain his longstanding commitment to it as a subject.

I myself have spent a lot of time thinking about the imagery of that image, and of its many associations (nor have I been the only one). But rather than prolong this already overlong review with yet another discussion of multireferential imagery, I’ll just say that the stark black-and-white imagery in that row of verticals and ovals seems to have sunk so deeply into my psyche that it influenced my entire response to “Motherwell: The East Hampton Years.”


I’m not going to say that the paintings unrelated to it didn’t appeal to me. I was grateful for a chance to see them all – not least, “The Homely Protestant” (1948), having last seen it, I think, in the Motherwell-Frankenthaler living room on East 94th Street in 1969.

It was illuminating to learn that this cartoon-like figure was intended to be a self-portrait (the title was chosen randomly from “Finnegan’s Wake”). And, looking at it as a self-portrait, it becomes easier to see it as an inspiring attempt to meld surrealist biomorphism with the angularities of childhood or outsider painting.

In other early works, like “In Beige With Sand” (1945), we have narrow vertical bands in blue and shades of ocher, contrasting with floating darker and lighter ovals—a cunning amalgam of surrealist ovoids with Matissean colors & the appearance of Matisse cutouts.

Combining Matisse with surrealism! Now, if that isn’t the most audacious trick of the week! I can’t imagine that André Breton, the high priest of surrealism, ever had anything like this in mind, but the young Motherwell brings it off time after time, and after a while, a pattern – or an image – starts to emerge.

Hanging in this left-hand, mostly earlier gallery, with all its abstracted portraits, is “The Voyage” (1949), which is four feet high, eight feet long and really an abstract. It also seemed to me the first harbinger of the “Elegy” image, though still a long way from it.

Reading like a huge flag or banner, it is built around 9 vertical bands of different size and shape—three black, three white and three ocher, busied up with a black shell shape in the top left center (on an ocher vertical), a white oval in the bottom center (on a black vertical), and a spiky black shape (on the next ocher vertical to the left).

Dammit, I said to myself as I looked at it, he’s on the way to the “Elegy” image, but he’s still not there yet. He’s got the verticals, but he doesn’t know what to put in between them, so he fills up the space with all those cutesy little details. Not that "The Voyage" doesn’t hold its own as a very fine picture, but it’s not quite as eloquent as Motherwell's work would later be.

From this gallery (on the left of the lobby) I passed rapidly to the other gallery (on the right). Here on one side of the room are studies for a mural for a synagogue, together with the finished mural. These incorporate recognizable though stylized Jewish symbols—the tablets of Moses, Jacob’s Ladder, and a menorah. They’re all attractive, but only a way station on Motherwell’s progress, as I was charting it.

More to the point are the half-dozen other paintings in this space, mostly from the early 1950s, all dominated by a vibrant black (to Motherwell, as to Manet & Velázquez, black was a color, not the absence of one). The gallery as a whole hangs together nicely because of all this black, but some of the individual paintings are a tad more problematic.

It’s not that they’re not good – I particularly liked “Untitled (Iberia)” (1951/c. 1963), with the black overwhelming all but one small lower-left hand corner, and the extremely Matissean “Black Figuration on Blue” (1950). But they’re still too conscientious, still the artistic-scholar seeking to merge surrealism with Matisse (plus a dash of “Guernica” and a little "Broadway Boogie Woogie" thrown in, for good measure).

Most of these paintings have vertical bands or rectangles of black somewhere in them, too. And I kept saying, when is he going to figure out what to put between those vertical bands? And he kept not quite getting it – until finally, we are shown “At Five in the Afternoon.” I said to myself (jubilantly), I think he’s got it. By George, he’s got it—the thing to put between those vertical bands is a series of ovoids. And keep the field behind the blacks sheer white.

My relief was tremendous—and then I realized that “At Five in the Afternoon” was done in 1948-49—earlier than most of the paintings in this gallery, and earlier than “The Voyage”. So Motherwell didn’t realize all at once the potency of the image in “At Five in the Afternoon,”or its potential. He made it, then tried out other ways of attacking the problem, then finally went back to it.

So! What does this prove? Only that his development wasn’t linear. But whoever said it had to be?
Be the first to comment