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
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