Abstract Critical

Robert Motherwell: Beside the Sea

Robert Motherwell: Beside the Sea is currently on display at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. A slideshow of works in that exhibition can be seen here. Below is a short excerpt from a book by Sam Cornish which accompanied the 2011 Bernard Jacobson exhibition, Robert Motherwell: Works on Paper.

Beside the Sea No. 45, 1967
Acrylic and ink on paper 76.5 x 54.9 cm Courtesy of Bernard Jacobson Gallery, copyright Dedalus Foundation, Inc/, licensed by VAGA, New York.

 

Beside the Sea

Provincetown is on ‘a narrow spit of land surrounded by sea, which reflects light with a diffused brilliance that is subtly but crucially different from the dry, inland light of Tuscany, the Madrid plateau… where the glittering light is not suffused, but crystal clear’. In the summer of 1942, under this ‘diffused brilliance’ Motherwell married his first wife Maria Emilia Ferrira y Moyers, the year after they had met during his trip to Mexico with Roberta Matta. He spent most of his subsequent summers there.  He felt that he could absorb the ‘light and sea air… almost into one’s blood, certainly into one’s eye and mind and painting wrist.’

During the summer of 1962, the second he spent there with his third wife, the painter Helen Frankenthaler, Motherwell would relax after a day’s painting on the seaside steps of an unoccupied cottage. And, ‘sitting dreaming on the steps I used to be struck by the beauty, the force and the grace, at high tide with a strong Southwest wind of the seaspray spurting up, sometimes taller than a man, above the seawall.’

Deciding that this would make a good subject for a painting he began to experiment, at first without success. ‘It then occurred to me to use nature’s own process: after all I was using liquid oil paint mixed in a bucket, not much more viscous than salt water. So with dripping brush I hit the drawing paper with all my force.’ This first experiment split the paper, and so with thicker paper he tried again, this time fixing his brush onto yard long handles. ‘I hit the laminated paper with the full force of my hundred  eighty pounds, with the paintbrush moving in a six-foot arc – I remember the sensation as that of cracking a bullwhip. An adequate equivalent of the pounding summer seaspray appeared, in deep sky blue.’[i]

Motherwell often turned to the sea to express the twined curse and liberation that he saw as accompanying the modern artist’s freedom. The act of painting was ‘an effort, often clumsy and sometimes desperate, like a blind swimmer, to cover the abyss, the void the world sometimes presents’.[ii] The challenge of original creation was ‘a voyaging into the night, one knows not where, on an unknown vessel, an absolute struggle with the elements of the real.’[iii] Elsewhere the sea could provide comfort and even leisure, so that ‘drawing is a racing yacht, cutting through the ocean. Painting is the ocean itself.’[iv] Toward the end of his life, sitting on the deck of his studio in Provincetown, where he had spent almost every summer for nearly fifty years, he spoke of the ocean as ‘the element, earth mother – the constant change of the tides, its relation to the moon; its almost too beautiful’. In the same breath, ‘I regard being here on the water… as my version of a Parisian café and I can sit here by the hour’. No longer facing the water as a ‘blind swimmer’, he then suggested that, though ‘its certainly not profound… all artists are voyeurs, not people of action.’[v]

It is perhaps this breadth of feeling that prompted Motherwell to recreate what he called the ‘natural automatism’ of the sea crashing against the seawall. The clear urgency, even violence of the marks in the series, and their thinness against the expanse of white, suggests a shrill cry. Contrary to Motherwell’s later feelings of leisure this cry seems somewhere between triumph and despair.


[i] All quotations from this and preceding two paragraphs are from Robert Motherwell, ‘Provincetown and Days Lumberyard: A Memoir’, 1978, in The Writings of Robert Motherwell, eds Dore Ashton with Joan Banach, University of California Press, 2007, pp. 308-311

[ii] Motherwell, ‘Abstract Art and the Real’, 1949, in The Writings of Robert Motherwell, p. 85

[iii] Motherwell speaking in a roundtable discussion in Modern Artists in America: First Series, 1951, Wittenborn & Schultz, p. 13

[iv] Motherwell, ‘Thoughts on Drawing’, 1970, in The Writings of Robert Motherwell, p. 249

[v] Motherwell speaking in Kenneth Cavander, Robert Motherwell and the New York School: Storming the Citadel, (film), Phaidon Press, 1992

  1. Ashley West said…

    I have similar thoughts about Sam’s last comments about the Davie piece. There seems to be a complex drama here between very diverse elements – repetition, the grid, the ellipse, automatism, abstract figuration/personnages, deep space, flat space, centralised motif, forms going off the edge. This includes a lot that I find myself trying to envisage and links with a curiosity I have about a similar interplay across boundaries in Persian miniatures, early Italian painting and oriental rugs. I find the disruption of space/inclusion of outside space in rug fragments with irregular frayed edges and holes in them even more fascinating – connection here with the Davison collages? I don’t know if this makes any sense in relation to what we are talking about, but I find it has reminded me of something I need to explore further in my own work, so thanks for that!. Here are a few images that relate.

    http://www.spongobongo.com/her97761.jpg

    http://www.turkotek.com/misc_00058/fragments_files/Khor2.jpg

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/50/Baysunghur's_Shahname_001.jpg/270px-Baysunghur's_Shahname_001.jpg

    http://www.ashleywest.co.uk/images/home/Painting%20with%20Elliptical%20Forms.jpg

  2. Robin Greenwood said…

    I thought I was patronising at times, but really Ashley!

    ‘a gathering of blocks of colour awaiting composition – for something to be done with them’; or ‘but it just doesn’t seem very ‘grown up’ any more’.

    What nonsense. Perhaps you think screwing lightbulbs into bits of plywood and painting them yellow and blue more grown up? ‘They’re like guardians overseeing what’s happening below.’ Mmm, very mature.

    I know you got the idea from Sam, buy there isn’t a single ‘block’ in either of those two Gouk paintings. This oversight by you might be indicative of our differences. I see very specific relational structures in them. I would say that ‘Lava Gull’ especially is extraordinary in the variety and extent of invention, its huge colour range, and its ambitious spatial coherence. In that structure, in that play of colour and form, that articulation of pictorial space, I see a great measure of human content, of meaningfulness. I see it far more than in something that might vaguely be reminiscent of something else in some vague metaphorical or metaphysical manner – far more than in lightbulbs ‘like guardians’.

    You seem very intent upon summarising my views in a way that pretty much reflects the opposite of what I think:

    ‘Robin seems to be for a kind of abstraction that doesn’t seem to allow for much more than something very literal (in a visual sense) – formal, material based you might say, and devoid of humanity.’

    No, the opposite of that. I have essentially a very simple agenda, which is to find the content of abstract painting or sculpture and drop the subject-matter. Since having a subject-matter seems to me to get in the way of making real art now, it appears helpful for the moment to try to define why abstract art could and should do without it. I care little for the definition in itself, other than to assist as a part of the task of focussing on what is real in what we make and discarding what we are all guilty of imagining we are investing our art with. I don’t become less human because I want to drop the subject-matter.

    If you think you have outgrown all that, Ashley, and can now take on higher matters of the mind, I can only think you will have a rude awakening should you come face to face with some serious critical comparisons of your own work.

    • Ashley West said…

      This is an interesting experiment – using this format to discuss such matters. Does it work/get us anywhere? Not sure. We can only try and see. I do try to appreciate your points Robin and try to respond in as useful a way as possible. If I veer into crudities or offence do forgive me – it isn’t intentional. I can only try in my own work too. I don’t think Davie was averse to his metaphysical metaphors either, was he?. Interesting that Stephen Buckeridge had the same initial thoughts about Gouk too when I spoke with him this morning. You did cause me to go back to the Davie again. The more I looked the more affectionate I felt towards it and the more I regretted the ‘not very grown up’ comment, but this painting is maybe an exceptional Davie. Sometimes you go back to someone and the works don’t quite live up to the idea or memory you had of them. This one does. I agree with John about his recent work. I just found that for me, the kind of ‘full on’ colour, content and improvisation you get with a lot of his early work and which I was trying, needed ‘tempering’with something else. But his early influence on me was enormous, which was maybe as much to do with his philosophy as his work. I have his print ‘Celtic Dreamboat’ which is beautiful (and much more economical). The ‘huge colour range’ in the Gouk you talk about just doesn’t do it for me. Perhaps it’s a bit fruitless trying to argue for some kind of consensus (sorry, not a very well chosen phrase). Artists try to intuit ways forward through the act of painting, rather than talking. It’s delicate stuff, which is probably why artists don’t lay into each other’s work too much – it’s more about looking, listening, and paying a lot of attention and respect to where they are coming from as individuals, and amongst the better stuff going on at the moment there’s some really sensitive and quite challenging stuff. I was looking at a Brendan Lancaster piece (only on the screen) this morning and it made me stop and think:
      images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQsYRGI8HQ-vsjrJLbpgC0K_f0EZCzpRDnf83KOrWZgxDrDXJzf

  3. John Holland said…

    It ‘s a lovely Alan Davis – his eary work seems under-rated. Then he started doing all that atavistic symbolist stuff…

  4. Ashley West said…

    Thanks for putting something forward Robin – look what it has unleashed! This warrants a lot of thought, but my initial response is that this seems to me to be a glimpse into the past, not the future. I was humorously relieved at Sam’s ‘just blocks’ comment, as I had been thinking more or less the same thing. Yes, Gouk’s works are very colourful, visual – almost impressionist, but to my mind quite primitive – a gathering of blocks of colour awaiting composition – for something to be done with them. They are TOO full-blooded for me – too much of the flesh, and maybe emotional impulse, and not enough of the mind. Davie too – he was my hero in my twenties (when maybe I was more full blooded too!) but it just doesn’t seem very ‘grown up’ any more. I feel I’ve moved on from that. It’s like moving on from Carl Orff’s ‘Carmina Burana’ (which was a revelation at 22)to Bach. Having said that there’s much more of a complex drama going on in Davie’s – probably one of the most considered pieces of his I’ve seen. It makes me think of the early Motherwells and even the early Hodgkins where there’s more going on and a lot more composition too – using the grid, interestingly, in one form or another – so the automatic is balanced by something more measured. I prefer something like Gouk’s ‘Wine Iris Whoa!’where he seems to commit to something, although interestingly there’s more differentiated space here – more a sense of the figure/ground relationship. Of course you gather by now my interest in Diebenkorn. It took a while to get to him, but I can’t think of anyone else that comes close. George Blacklock said he thought Diebenkorn was the beginning of something, not the end. I wonder what he meant by that?. I do think there are people doing interesting things – I think Prunella Clough had a lot to say, and look at William Stein (www.sol-space.co.uk). Having said that I don’t see anything wrong at all with someone like Gouk digging around with something he finds interesting, even if it is ‘old ground’. Maybe I’ve been over judgmental. I think we need to be generous towards those who are themselves generous in their work. I also think getting hung up on the word ‘abstract’ can be a mistake. People like Lanyon and Hodgkin claim there works aren’t abstract at all. I saw some Morris Graves pieces recently at the Phillips Collection – another gull: ‘Wounded Gull’- they were stunning, let alone Degas or Bonnard – there’s more abstraction in those than many so called abstract paintings surely. But I’ll try to think of one piece I would put forward. Good that we’re getting down to it. It’ll be interesting to see what is possible in front of real paintings and in front of each other.

  5. Robin Greenwood said…

    In defence (if I need to go down this route) of my supposedly not offering anything concrete to look at or discuss, you can find at the launch of abstractcritical an exhibition I curated at Poussin Gallery entitled ‘High-abstract’ http://abstractcritical.com/article/high-abstract-at-poussin-gallery/ which had singular paintings by Alan Davie, Fred Pollock, John Hoyland, Alan Gouk, Anne Smart and a sculpture by myself, which I collectively described in the catalogue essay as giving us ‘…a glimpse of that future, a look at some lonesome but prescient examples of high-ambition, high-complexity abstract art from the past 50 years, some possible exemplars…’ of what might be possible. You can read the full catalogue essay here: http://www.poussin-gallery.com/site.php?exhibition=73
    During the show we had a live discussion in front of the work, in which (for example) I attempted to explain why I thought the painting by Alan Gouk, ‘Ebrillade of Pegasus’, was just about as good as abstract painting had got (so far). You can see the painting here: http://www.poussin-gallery.com/site.php?artist=2&group=29
    I don’t think I can revisit that particular live discussion now (sadly unrecorded), other than to say that although I have since developed some degree of criticism of all of the individual works in that show (my sculpture included), I would still stand by the assertion I made at the time that I have yet to see, in the flesh, any painting by Hans Hofmann (who is my favourite abstract painter) that is as good as that particular Alan Gouk. There is, in fact, a Gouk I think is even better, ‘Lava Gull’: http://www.poussin-gallery.com/site.php?artist=2&group=archive. I could even be critical of that, but if you want something concrete to discuss, maybe you could suggest something (Ashley) that we could compare it with, though there are severe limitations to doing this on-line with crap reproductions of things. One thing is for sure – it certainly does not look like ‘one hand clapping’ (John); it’s as full-blooded a piece of work as I’ve come across, with a large degree of complexity and invention, and it looks to me pretty abstract. It is, I think, a very, very good piece of abstract art, and all that is good about it is to be found in the painting itself, put there by the artist. There is nothing whatsoever to be gained by reading anything further into this painting or imposing any external interpretation.
    You will see from the ‘High-abstract’ essay that I draw many of my doubts about the achievements of abstract art to date from a comparison with the best figurative art from history. I still think that comparison is a valid one, and one that we can and must make if we are to renew our efforts to make abstract art that is ‘more complex, more specific, richer in human content’. Far from championing anything like minimalism, I’m after the opposite: complexity, particularity and as meaningful an art as possible.
    I would certainly hope in the not too distant future to repeat at Poussin the exercise of discussing the merits of work I consider to be making advances in painting or sculpture, and to do so in the presence of the work itself. All-comers will be welcome, as ever, to participate. I hope others will set up similar and independent occasions for the comparison and evaluation of what is best in abstract art. And I hope abstractcritical can play some kind of a role in facilitating, publicising and evaluating that process.

    • Sam said…

      Surely both those paintings by Gouk would fail the tests that (Robin seems to suggest) of complete unlikeness to the world. Both have not particularly submerged relations to landscape and to natural processes; they also seem to express a vitality that seem decidedly unabstract. I mean ‘full-blooded’?

      And also though I like his painting very much I can’t see that Gouk’s concentration on a limited number of modernist painters is really going to open up abstract painting. Regardless of how much these paintings are better than Hofmann (I haven’t seen enough in the flesh to comment) they are undoubtedly Hofmannesque, and Gouk’s painting overall seems more restricted than Hofmann’s: I don’t think Robin would accept the limited formats which Gouk uses in his own sculpture. Though I am attracted to this strain of abstract painting, surely abstract painting has to have more than just blocks endlessly re-arranged?

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Neither Gouk is in thec least ‘just blocks’, neither for me have a relation to landscape. That’s why I picked them. Gouk’s work often does tend towards both those traits, but not these two. Nor do these two seem indicative of a ‘strain’ of abstract painting, which I think is a very casual observation.
        Maybe you would care to suggest, Sam, something better to compare them with…

      • Sam Cornish said…

        Of course they are not ‘just blocks’, but that is clearly their basic language, however much this is placed under the just contained tension which is, particularly in the case of Lava Gull, the pictures’ main excitement. ‘Strain’ may have been a casual way of putting it, and I would certainly not ask for works that constantly strive after the new for its own sake, but would tendency or tradition be better? As Gouk said in his recent intro to his last show of paintings he is consciously working within an orthodoxy.

        We are also going to have to disagree on the landscape element: look at the way the red patch in the left hand corner of Lava Gull stretches out to describe 2 recessions even as it also strains to lie flat the picture plane (and this is a great bit of painting). And Lava Gull also relates to landscape in its proportions, in its establishment of higher and lower, in its materiality, in the sense with which it seems carved as much as painted, and in its gullies and its cliffs. I do not think that we need to see these as references necessarily – in that I think the picture resists the relations enough for us not to be aware of them, or distracted by them, as we look, but I do think that when we step back and consider the experience the picture offers these relations form a crucial part of it. It’s worth stressing that I do not think that this is necessarily a problem: in their resistance they are still abstract pictures (and incidentally I think very good pictures) but if you want to draw firm dividing lines between what counts as abstract and what does not then neither Lava Gull nor Pegasus of… are not very good examples to choose.

        Regardless of their relative abstraction I thought Alan Davie’s Patrick’s Delight in the same exhibition was better than either of the Gouk’s.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Blimey. Well, I don’t think you can draw a firm dividing line between what is abstract and what is not. You seem to answer your own question about your interpretations of landscape – they don’t matter. I think both of the Gouk’s are fine examples to choose, but yes, ‘Patrick’s Delight’ by Alan Davie is a very fine painting, that’s why I picked that too, but we have done that comparison. I was asking really for something else – which I presume in your book has to be bloodless to be abstract? In the context of this discussion I think the Gouk shades the Davie, just, as a better indication of where abstract painting might go; and that is down to the coherent passages of ‘free’ form which hang together so well in the central-right portion of the Gouk (Ebrillade…) compared with the slightly more architectural and almost graphic content of the Davie.

      • Sam Cornish said…

        Though I find this difficult to think through, it is less that the landscape element in Gouk’s work doesn’t matter and more that it works on us without us necessarily having to identify it (of course this is difficult to prove, and reactions will differ)(perhaps it is like a grid to other artists – though admittedly a more productive impetus). It is also important to how the pictures work that their identity as landscape remains less specific than the identity of the other elements, which give a sense of themselves beyond the things we might find in the landscape (this is obvious, I suppose); it is perhaps like landscape painting turned inside out…

        What I was tilting at, in a way that suggested a vehemency I don’t quite feel, was firstly that Gouk’s painting, in its relation to landscape / the world, seemed to go against calls you have made (maybe which I had misinterpreted) for abstract art to become more abstract; and then to use this as a stick to beat down other examples of (nominally) abstract art. Secondly full-blooded: again, it’s not that I think that abstract painting can’t be full-blooded, in the same way as I don’t think it can’t contain a relation to landscape. It’s just that full-blooded seems to me an example of an analogy; regardless of how specific and complex their elements are, a significant aspect of Gouk’s work – which some of his lesser work relies on – is the vigour with which he asserts his elements, and these bring in lots of shadowy things that you, at least in these discussions, want to deny to abstract art…. The blocks endlessly rearranged was a bit of low blow but I think it contains some truth..

        On the Davie – I thought, as I think I said at the time, that this was one of the most impressive abstract paintings I had ever spent time with. It still is, in the sense I haven’t seen anything better since. In particular – beyond its simple success – I liked its strangeness, its ability to combine & keep separate different elements and levels (which seems a very productive way painting could proceed) and its ability not to submerge figuration within abstraction but to place the different languages against each other. I also liked its distance, and the way it moved away from painterliness (if is is graphic, so is Matisse’s Bathers by a River – more of that please!). Though this is clearly not how Davie worked, it seems to open up possibilities for an abstract artist who, whilst avoiding format painting, does not work out everything on the canvas, which is something I would very much like to see… I’ve got Delacroix’s Women of Algiers above my desk and this contains much freer form than any abstract painting, and was achieved without that sort of free-improvisation…

    • john holland said…

      Sorry, I’m confused, Robin; the link seems to be to a painting called (charmingly) ‘Wine Iris Whoa!’, not ‘Lava Gull’. Which, by the way, looks to me very landscape-like. Am I being dim?

  6. Robin Greenwood said…

    ‘representation, gesture and symbol together’…an unholy trinity. So if the point was to try these things together – back then in the fifties – what is the outcome for us now? Are we to forever replay these mannerisms, individually, as Ashley seems to suggest? Or do we, for the sake of the art (rather than for our own satisfaction or interest) try to move forward into something newer and tougher, more abstract still. Obviously lots of people disagree with this, but the mashing up of representation, gesture and symbol etc. into a kind of semi-abstraction remains to my mind an unpleasant orthodoxy, reeking of artiness, producing time and again poor results. It’s very popular at the moment amongst contemporary painters, and of course art historians and commentators love it.

    • Ashley West said…

      Art doesn’t exist ‘out there’, beyond ourselves, to my mind. What is this ‘more abstract still, newer and tougher’? Robin,you continue to refuse to offer us something in this world – not some hypothetical world (who is the fantasist now?!)that even has an ounce of what you are proposing. Can’t we move things on and talk about something specific?

    • john holland said…

      Robin- no symbols, no references, no grids, no geometry, no ‘stereotyped’ form, more abstract than anything previously achieved including Mondrian or Louis- your ideal for the future of abstraction is starting to sound a bit like the visual equivalent of the sound of one hand clapping.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      I love the attitude, the ethical stance. The practicality of escaping entirely from representation may be in doubt, but we don’t know what is possible until it happens. In the meantime ambitious dreams are admirable and worth more than wise understanding.

  7. Sam Cornish said…

    It might be fair to Motherwell to point out the Beside the Sea are by far the most literal of a represented ‘subject matter’ in his work. And of course the point is not to simply represent but to try representation, gesture and symbol together…

    • John Holland said…

      Well there are plenty of other examples in his work that are at least as representational;
      Garden Window, Summer Seaside Doorway, The Green Studio, The Brown Easel, Tree Of My Window, The August Sun And Shadow, Sand And Sea….
      Not only that, but his colour is nearly always either local (blue sea, ochre earth, red blood, green garden), or symbolic, or both.

      • Sam Cornish said…

        Of course you are right – it was a slightly silly thing to say. I think perhaps what I meant was – backpedaling a little – that when you know the story behind the Beside the Sea the mental image of the sea splurting over the wall subsumes the painted image; particularly in terms of the direct translation of gesture, which is, I think, unique in his work. With the various doors and windows that appear throughout his work, I think that, though their referential content would be more or less obvious than the BTS without any back-story, they seem somehow to be able to resist being ‘just’ doors or windows. More later…

  8. Ashley West said…

    Going back to Robin’s first comment: ‘someone had to do it once, and move on’- when we look at a lot of abstraction going on now, you might say it’s doing the same things, maybe in different ways. Well I can understand that. This “it’s been done” business often makes me wince a bit. A splash of paint like that may have been done, but can’t we understand the need of an artist to experience it for him or herself, i.e. directly, not through simply looking at someone else’s or recognising it simply as part of a lexicon. It doesn’t carry much kudos if your eye is on ‘being original’and carving out a name for yourself, but what happened to exploring something for its own sake. If it arouses my curiosity then to hell with everything else. Surely the Chinese painters have been doing that stuff for hundreds of years, but in traditions like that it was more understood that you learn through imitation – it was more selfless, less about ego perhaps, like a lot of those traditions. I’m not sure if artists have that much choice at the end of the day. You respond to things as best you can and try to be true to yourself – sometimes you may know that it isn’t earth shattering, but it has relevance and meaning for you there and then. Moving on? moving on where? Just be here, as honestly as you can, then maybe something will shift, but it will come from the right place. In this sense Motherwell’s description of wanting to convey the sea splash, is, while kind of silly, also endearing and has a simple directness and honesty about it. That honesty is a long way from the glibness with which we all sometimes bandy around erudite comments, whether its Robert Hughes or not. ‘too beautiful’ ‘cover the void’ ‘curse and liberation’- how many of us have what it takes to experience things as fully as that. What’s wrong with numinous, or figurative or metaphysical? It seems as if we are trying to squeeze out humanity (well that’s one way to cover the void I guess). Not that I don’t think it’s good to question the Emperor’s new clothes – sometimes you look at some of those Motherwell’s and it’s like they’re supposed to be good for you, like free jazz, or E.E.Cummings, then you realize you’re not actually getting anything out of it (but you respect what it stands for!). I respond more readily to his 40s stuff, maybe because it has more going on, but is that a lack in me? I think perhaps with his Open pieces and Newman’s paintings, it’s surely about what is happening ‘off’ the painting (because in a sense there’s not a lot ‘on’ them)- the deep questions and feelings they trigger. And what’s wrong with that. I think some of these guys weren’t afraid to be deeply human. Move on? I find it useful to assume I’ve never truly experienced a painting I admire, or anything else for that matter – even one breath, then it leaves you with the enormous possibility of returning to what you thought you knew and going deeper: truly being here, now.

    • Emyr Williams said…

      Nothing ‘wrong’ with much of the things you mention – not sure though that “numinous” and “metaphysical” have much to do with painting at the end of the day , really. Surely , like “integrity” from another thread they are also “red herrings”? As to figurative.. it would be an interesting issue to discuss , but I would say that if it has to serve a purpose in some way and figuration is one, there is a compromise – whether you like it or not. I enjoy figurative art, contemporary figurative art too, but I always feel let down when I suddenly see something that I didn’t think was there “emerge” or fall into a logic that leads me away from the facts of the matter – the paint, the surface, the colour. That is a heck of lot to take in anyway. As to move on – then yes, really we need to move on. You can’t second guess humanity either – “nature is change” (as a little rat chef character in one of my kid’s cartoon films once memorably said!) Enjoy it all, learn all you can, but engage with things on your own terms – as you suggested. I am intrigued by Robin’s comments the more I think of it to look again at the great abstract artists with fresh eyes and ask some pretty demanding questions. As to what is happening off a painting…apart from the room, nothing. I don’t need to invent experiences that are simply not there. I prefer to spend the time looking at what is there – that for me re-enforces “truly being here, now”.

      • john holland said…

        The trouble is that ‘truly being, here, now’ is an aspiration, not an attainable state.
        You don’t have to be a desciple of Baudrillard to think that we are not just here, now, but everywhere we’ve been. The eye sees what the brain allowes it to see. If Constable, or even Cezanne, had (somehow) seen a De Kooning, he would have thought it the daubings of a lunatic, or a painting by Louis an unfortunate accident.

  9. Robin Greenwood said…

    To take up the comments by Sam and Emyr, which I would broadly agree with: when we talk, as we often do, about Louis or Pollock and others opening things up ‘in a radical way’, what do we really mean? I wonder a little if we don’t just mean the process, rather than the picture. For example, Louis’ ‘Unfurled’ series were a completely new way of making painting, and I think they are in some ways truly wonderful for that, but as painted structures they could also be viewed as really rather conventional in what they actually do, plastically and spatially. The same, I think, applies to Noland (and to those early Bowlings and Goldings in the other notes?). Their minimalism (with a small m) seems to me to severely limit their capacity for both adventure and invention. It is true that Louis, for example, also did paintings related to the ‘Unfurled’ series that did different, perhaps more interesting, (dis)placements of the streaks of colour, but it still seems to me a great limitation, to be held by the discipline of that singular process, to have to make only those sorts of poured marks on the surface of the painting that this process allows, without resource to all the other ways and means available to picture-making, if one might use that phrase.

    • Emyr Williams said…

      Yes , one particular process will ultimately lead to a closing in rather than an opening out of possibilities.  Picasso said painters too often get out their little cake tins… I would say that in Louis’s case though, he always knew this and always moved things forward. His later works – after the startling Unfurleds – were his best in my opinion. What I take from them is his disinterestedness in colour. Compare them with Noland who has a more “localised” sense of colour. Noland saw landscape as joined to abstraction at the hip, which is very telling I think, and very much in Motherwell’s case too. Louis had a higher degree of synthesis in his work. Noland did control surface in some astonishing ways though . I have seen shows of his with such a deftness of control , ( post Louis, when paint technology had also moved on). I read a Manet quote the other day, which says something like ..do it , if it works, great, if not, do it again, all the rest is bluff. This is sort of Louis’s world. Also some of them are exhilarating.  I sympathise a lot with your drift here though about spatial and plastic achievement – there must be more.

  10. Sam Cornish said…

    Would it be far to say that much painting did move on? And this is a well known story. But where it went – in the main – to get away from the numinous was the minimal and the literal. Which is pretty much, at least conventionally, where Louis’s stripes seem to point away from Rothko et al.

    • Emyr Williams said…

      Yes, absolutely though things are quite fluid in this regard. Each one of those terms sounds like classified dead ends put like that (I think they are a bit to be frank though). There are always “clues” and each artist seeks and finds their own. I can’t help feeling also that “numinous” is possibly an arty way of saying far away. We can look at the achievements but it is more productive to identify what is not being done that makes us react against something as well as to it. I would keep all doors open whilst “moving on”.

  11. Emyr Williams said…

    Very well put about Motherwell – they seem “suggestive” in some way, which is not really adding anything to the experience of looking at them.. Only one I would defend – not that the others need it really- is Louis, who when you get to the late stripes (though he never saw them as “stripes” as such) was rigorously abstract. It is also worth remembering that he died in his prime and due to his uncompromising approach , always questioning , would have continued to develop his work in this vein , I’m sure. It was his veils that were the most popular but they look too much like ‘art’ and have a whiff of the numinous about them – similar in fact to Newman and Rothko ( another reason he moved things on.) One last point, Louis really got beyond the look of the easel whereas I’m not convinced Motherwell really did (not a bad thing in itself but they looked painted in a familiar, even traditional, way). Louis opened up things in such a radical way. I don’t think even Pollock got as far in this territory, though he still produced some jaw dropping moments. The good stuff always has a relevance, though I tend to agree with the sentiment of your point- time to move on.

  12. Robin Greenwood said…

    I can’t help thinking that this needs a big discussion. Half of me likes Motherwell, the other half thinks he – and this bit of writing which so encapsulates the ‘Cape-Codness’ of it all – is Romantic twaddle. The process of the painting illustrates a figurative subject matter in a way that is very graphic. What I’m pretty clear about is that it sets a bad example for us to in any way shape or form emulate now. I think we just have to say somebody had to do it once (Motherwell did it really well) and move on.
    It’s not that I don’t think they’re beautiful things, but I’m haunted at the moment by Robert Hughes’ quote about Morris Louis: ‘the last exhalation of symbolist nuance in America…’
    Symbolism!?! I’ve always liked Louis, but I’m beginning to wonder just how abstract any of the Americans really were. Newman and Rothko seem more and more metaphysical, de Kooning is really very figurative, as is Pollock often. Maybe this just opens things up for the future – to start looking for what is really abstract. I’ve thought for a long time that we really need to get over this period in art history in order to move on.

    • alan shipway said…

      Motherwell’s commentaries about his work are sometimes pretentious, or portentous, or both, and his painting sometimes is, too. Nor has it ever been at all even in quality. But none of that takes away from his best work, which I think we still underrate. I suspect the forthcoming Motherwell catalogue raisonne will contain a few surprises, and will maybe show a far more diverse range of work than we knew – and maybe some great paintings we didn’t know about.

      About Robert Hughes: perhaps one of the best writers about art, no-one cutting through the nonsense that surrounds it quite so scathingly as he did – but at the same time, for someone who seemed to prefer James Rosenquist to Barnett Newman, I’ve come to think he didn’t have much of an eye. I think Hughes gets Morris Louis completely wrong, in that quote, for instance.