Entering the Robert Motherwell exhibition just opened at Bernard Jacobson my attention was first drawn by a dispersed set of single images amongst the collages hanging on the walls of the main gallery. Untitled (1969) on the far wall, U.S. Art, New York (1962) opposite it on the wall behind the window; then on the longer wall to the left: La Cuisinière (1967) and Untitled (1967). It seemed as if all four works rose to meet me, were propelled forward as I looked at them.
I suppose anyone and everyone receptive to this kind of thing has felt something similar, has been immediately struck by a picture on entering the room in which it is hung. All pictures are set-up to respond to being looked at. But in these works, and in others in the exhibition, this sensation is central to how the images function. These works are – at least in large part – about vision, or rather, a particular type of visual experience. Here vision is figured as something which happens, and happens quickly, a momentary coming together of seeing and the thing seen; a sudden opening of the eyes, a flash of light, the pulling back of a curtain.
The day after seeing the exhibition I was reminded of it whilst on a bus. Vaguely looking out of the window as the buildings outside slipped past, I was brought to a state of attention when the buildings parted to frame the lower section of an expanse of pinkish-blue sky dotted with clouds. Though the bus kept on moving the image was fixed, seemed to remain in front of my eyes.
The fragment of collaged material at the centre of the collages plays an important role in how we see the whole. First because the fragment creates the collage’s sense of space (there is no seeing without a thing seen), determining our distance from the scene pictured; some of the collages introduce a horizon line which works to the same ends. And second because the fragments activate the space they exist in: each is placed to give the impression that it has travelled out of distance, from further back in the picture’s space, from where it has been flung upward and toward the viewer, and has then been caught and clarified in the foreground.
Motherwell very self-consciously (in a couple of works too self-consciously for my taste) looks back to the papier collé Picasso and Braque first made a little over a century ago.  Though it can open up with a hazy light, Picasso and Braque’s Cubism remains an intimate art of enclosed spaces; Braque understood his collages as visual translations of the availability of objects to touch. Motherwell enlarges this space, makes it more expansive, aerated, shifts its focus from ground to sky. In part he did this by drawing on Matisse. Motherwell empties out and destabilises Matisse’s architecture, using its restraint but imbuing it with a sense of motion (are some of these works non-gestural action paintings?) and a personality at once elegant, vulnerable and defiant.
I think what I’ve just written has some truth to it, but perhaps it pushes too far in one direction. Certainly only some of the collages function in this way. There are a number (such as In Yellow Ochre with Two Blues, 1968) which draw into themselves, which work in a slower manner, that you look into more than they rise to strike you. Some (In Green, with Ultramarine and Ochre, 1967) are also emphatically grounded, so that the central element resembles a figure or standing stone sitting rather dumbly on the horizon line. Perhaps in order to avoid the dead-end which these static and (in comparison to the rest of the show) almost ponderous works seem in danger of ending up at, many of the later collages are more complex than those the show begins with.  These demonstrate that Motherwell kept up the momentum of his invention almost up to his death in 1991 at the age of 76. Many of the best works – which I have not got time to discuss – are relatively late. Particularly good are From Below (1975); Australia II (1983) and Night Dream (1988).
One of the chief pleasures of the exhibition is seeing how Motherwell was able to juggle his motifs, combine and recombine them so that his art remained alive. This ensures the work can be approached in many varied ways.  Rather than depending on an instant access to an individual work (as I’ve described above) we can approach them obliquely, as a group, picking up on and following visual cues from work to work as they are maintained or transformed.
One final thing. The reproductions really do not do the works justice. Please go and see for yourselves.
Robert Motherwell: Collage is on at Bernard Jacobson Gallery until the 27th of July.
 Gary Wragg, who I visited the show with, thought that Motherwell’s sense of interval was an inheritance from Picasso.
 There is currently an exhibition of Motherwell’s earliest collages (from 1941 to 1951) on at the Guggenheim Venice.
. Many people have remarked on the irony that in collage what once looked so full of life (say a newspaper clipping from 1912) rapidly comes to signify nostalgia or the passing of time more generally. I wonder if action or gestural painting runs a similar risk.