Abstract Critical

Robert Motherwell: Collage

Written by Sam Cornish

Robert Motherwell, U.S. Art, New York, NY, 1962, oil and collage on paper 73.7 x 58.4 cms (29 x 23 ins)RM12667

Robert Motherwell, U.S. Art, New York, NY, 1962, oil and collage on paper 73.7 x 58.4 cms (29 x 23 ins)RM12667

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.

Robert Motherwell, Untitled, 1969, pasted papers on Upson board, 113.3 x 73.7  cms (44 1/2 x 29  ins) RM13992

Robert Motherwell, Untitled, 1969, pasted papers on Upson board, 113.3 x 73.7 cms (44 1/2 x 29 ins) RM13992

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.

Robert Motherwell, Xylol, 1977, acrylic, paper, printed paper, and packing tape collage on canvas board, 101.6 x 76.2 cm (40 x 30ins)

Robert Motherwell, Xylol, 1977, acrylic, paper, printed paper, and packing tape collage on canvas board, 101.6 x 76.2 cm (40 x 30ins)

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. [1] 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.

Robert Motherwell, In Yellow Ochre with Two Blues, 1968, acrylic and pasted papers on paper, 77.5 x 56.5  cms (30 1/2 x 22 1/4  ins), RM13995

Robert Motherwell, In Yellow Ochre with Two Blues, 1968, acrylic and pasted papers on paper, 77.5 x 56.5 cms (30 1/2 x 22 1/4 ins), RM13995

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. [2] 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).

Robert Motherwell From Below, 1975, acrylic, pasted canvas, and pasted papers on canvas mounted on board, 182.9 x 91.4 cms (72 x 36 ins), RM12191

Robert Motherwell
From Below, 1975, acrylic, pasted canvas, and pasted papers on canvas mounted on board, 182.9 x 91.4 cms (72 x 36 ins), RM12191

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. [3] 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.

 [1] Gary Wragg, who I visited the show with, thought that Motherwell’s sense of interval was an inheritance from Picasso.

[2] There is currently an exhibition of Motherwell’s earliest collages (from 1941 to 1951) on at the Guggenheim Venice.

[3]. 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.

  1. Ashley West said…

    I like what you say Patrick about improvisation as a means to revelation. I think it connects with my comment on the Mike Stubbs interview. The integrity of this kind of activity is I think easily hijacked, misrepresented or displaced, by the art market, art theory, commodification,etc. For Motherwell these collages were perhaps playful or even philosophical experiments – the sort of thing one might these days put together on ones studio wall as exercises – maybe that was significant at the time, but now, though I admire what Motherwell stands for, how can they be more than something of certain historical interest, overblown by the art market. The context is lost. I agree with what you say about success/failure too. It’s so easy to misrepresent the uncertainty of the process that goes on in the studio. I’m working on a painting at the moment, pushing it, trying to go beyond the easy, the formulaic, the tasteful. I don’t know where the hell I am with it most of the time. Attempting to be honest isn’t easy, it is revelatory – it reveals the devil in yourself, let alone the devil out there!

  2. David Sweet said…

    Greenberg, who credited Motherwell with producing works that were ‘among the masterpieces of abstract expressionism’, also wrote that he had, at the same time, ‘turned out some of the feeblest paintings’ by any major exponent of the style. Sadly the collages at Jacobson’s, with their low-risk compositional strategies, pleasant, nibbled-edge homemade paper, slightly scrotal shapes and imported European ephemera, do seem pretty feeble to me. Nearby however, at the Mayor Gallery, are eight small watercolours by Agnes Martin. Her work is both abstract and expressionist in that she wedded avowedly non-figurative means to emotional experience. I don’t mean she felt something and got the viewer to feel the same thing, as in Tolstoy’s theory of expression. Martin has actualised the emotional charge within the works simply by picking the brush up and putting it down in a certain way. They make the ‘feeling’ at stake in the Motherwells seem inadequate and approximate. Worth crossing the street for, I think.

    • Sam Cornish said…

      More than a little harsh on the show as a whole, though suggesting that some of the works are approximate is fair: is this not a flipside of the range Motherwell was aiming at (or could you say the range + his slightly limited tools?).

  3. John Bunker said…

    I just saw the show and what struck me about much of this work was the clever, subtle interplay between the mark making and the collaged elements. It seems to me that Motherwell is being playful if not ironic in his placement of the quotidian parcel wrappings smack bang in the middle of many of these works. He is forcing a bit of dirty commerce and art world dandyism (via the New York postal system) into the sublime realms of gestural abstraction that would otherwise be most suited to work made on seaside retreats! Are there other historical precedents operating here, rather than just the Modernist architectonics of the heavy weights like Picasso and Matisse etc? I think so. Look at those much maligned Dadaist and Surrealist influences- Schwitters and Arp for a start! With this in mind I think we then get a much more free and upbeat reading of the work. Less of the all or nothing’ …not with a bang but a whimper…’ angst- and more of a sense of protean self renewal from what is around one, what is to hand; the ‘everyday stuff’ that gives sustenance to the mind and the body. (A welcome relief indeed from the sometimes feverish puritanical ravings of Mr Still and the likes!)

    Having said all that I think it might be interesting to tease out some of the differences between Motherwell’s notion of ‘Plastic Automatism’ and the general earlier influence of the Surrealist notion of ‘Psychic Automatism’ on the artists of the New York School.

  4. Patrick Jones said…

    To continue.Abstract Painting to me ,since Pollock ,has been an improvised act aimed at self revelation.Motherwell wanted into that.That Matisse had his windows[open and closed],his Moroccons comes from an earlier european model .Motherwell also wanted that hence his Elegies and Open series.These give a form for the painter to improvise around,not unlike Jazz musicians using standards.ITo move to the present money and success orientated art world its quite clear that most contemporary abstract artists,who we could expect more of, never leave their comfort zone .Sean Scully ,whose career as an Abstract artist hasnt been sufficiently discussed here,makes a virtue out of continual repetition.Ian Davenport looks interesting then repeats himself ad infinitum[,and laughs all the way to the Bank Paribas!]I would have loved to have seen and saved the many hundreds of canvasses Morris Louis is reported to have thrown away.That act of searching for the ideal form is essential to the development of a new ambitious Abstract Art.My point is varying degrees of success are inevitable, and almost a guarantee of Modernism,,if anything new and different is to be acheived.I havent seen the show but Motherwell reeks of this problem,his sensibility.The collages cant fail if he keeps close to the Cubism[and Picasso] they are derived from.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      How about an improvised act aimed at the revelation of art, not self revelation. Or aimed at the unknown.

      I think you are saying that Motherwell failed in a sense, and that failure is inevitable. And succeeded in another sense, but success might be too easy. And that maybe success and failure are very closely linked.

      In my opinion failure is inevitable if self revelation is the goal.

      • Patrick Jones said…

        Thanks Bob,The fine line between success and failure,and all the shades in between ,are Modernism’s most important contribution to this debate.Im sure Motherwell suffered from your description of the intellectual francophile writer,and yet now his work looks more and more urgent and his artistic,qualatative suffering very relevent.

  5. Patrick Jones said…

    Sam,Thats a great essay.I just spent 8 weeks at Ballinglen holed up with a huge Motherwell monograph.He is a really curious artist,capable of the best [the spanish and irish elergies]and the worst[the open series is just vacuous to me.His vulnerabilty was real,nurtured and cultivated to draw feeling from his work.I have long thought from my own experience that what I call the Modernist experience of making Abstract Painting,brings out the best and worst in its practitioners.I think he would have liked that idea,even th
    ough he was addicted to quality.

    • Sam said…

      Can you expand on what you think are the best and the worst aspects of modernist practice?

      • Patrick Jones said…

        Sam,The worst aspect of this modernist practise is its difficulty.Its just not possible to go into the studio everyday and paint beautifull uplifting pictures.Frankenthaler tried and Motherwell knew it wasnt enough.At least he tried to make meaningfull paintings about complex subjects like civil war.Any decent artist worth their salt will have a huge range of quality within their activety.Painting is a pleasure,making judgements about its success/failure is really hard.I respect Robins need for a new art,but learning and expanding the lanquage is endless graft and failure,with occasional flashes of success.
        I wonder if young artists will take the time when alternatives like film offer instant beauty,narrative,human meaning and social commentary.

  6. Robert Linsley said…

    You are right that Motherwell works entirely on sensibility and feeling. I’ve heard one well known critic say that because he was an intellectual, that he wrote for example, he was really not much of an artist. Motherwell had the best feeling for Matisse of any of his generation, the closest affinity.

    Plonking something down in the middle (roughly) of the picture, every time, is one recipe for bad abstraction, but as you point out, there are many different ways to plonk. Many distinctions can be drawn, and there is still potential, even in middle-plonking – at least that’s what I’m getting.

  7. Robin Greenwood said…

    One of your best mini-essays, Sam. You are good on Motherwell. I liked the show too, and I thought it was some of the best collage I’ve seen recently, and we’ve seen a lot. But I also think that’s the end of the road:

    “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.”

    From this I now get a feel of your vision of art, a very modernist vision, and though I might like it, perhaps as much as you, I think it is not enough. And we have to have more… something more than a flash.