‘Robert Motherwell: Early Collages’ was an exhibition first shown at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum last summer and until recently at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
When Peggy Guggenheim was planning a collage exhibition for her Art of This Century gallery in 1943, she had assembled work by Braque, Picasso, Matisse, Masson, Schwitters and invited Baziotes, Pollock and Motherwell to take part. The latter two had not worked in collage before so they tried working together at Pollock’s Manhattan studio. The results of this collaboration are lost, Pollock and Baziotes did not continue with collage, but Motherwell made a considerable number, and many of these were exhibited in Venice and New York last year.
Motherwell was only 28 in 1943, much younger than the other Americans and it seems that this opportunity enabled him to develop quickly as a serious painter belonging to the Abstract Experssionist movement. Working alongside Pollock would have given him the experience of Pollock’s intense application, which is clearly seen in Hans Namuth’s film made much later. Specifically the work on glass, where after a false start Pollock begins with pieces of thin wire mesh placed randomly and spontaneously on the glass, followed by more deliberately poured black paint. A superb work is created in minutes and it is essentially collage. The early Motherwells are also intense. The cut and torn pieces of paper have basically been dropped and then pasted down, followed black paint and some subdued colour.
Also exhibited amongst these 50 collages were a few small drawings of things, objects or personnages which seemed like drawings for sculpture. I asked myself, as I had before, ‘why did he not try his hand at making sculpture?’
He was the Abstract Expressionist painter who had excited me most of all when I was a student, and had inspired me to make sculpture. It was not the collage works but the large paintings that came later which seemed so sculptural, especially the ‘Elegies to the Spanish Republic’ series. I was too shy to ask him about sculpture when I met him in 1974. He talked about his working methods, that he kept the TV on in the studio to distract from making tasteful decisions, and would sometimes turn the lights off when working. The torn and cut paper had certainly been pasted down arbitrarily, recklessly even.
Had he borrowed these tricks from the surrealists, or was it Pollock’s influence, or Braque’s and Picasso’s? Certainly his use of speckled German wrapping paper was very similar to the wallpaper that Braque had found in a junk shop at Sorgues: indicating that he had studied Braque’s and Picasso’s guitar collages from 1910. These works begin with a simple and incomplete guitar shape, then drawing and shading are used to modify and complete the guitar. In other words, pre-cut paper shapes were pasted down spontaneously, followed by linear pencil marks that are more considered and added with considerable finesse, to bring the work to a conclusion. Motherwell’s are more painterly – black paint modifies the paper shapes, mostly linear and many using stripes. Subdued colour is also painted. In some, the over-painting covers so much collage that they become paintings. But it is with the interplay of collage and linear elements in another medium that he achieves his best results.
Motherwell and David Smith were friends and he was a regular visitor to Smith’s lonely studio, a long way from Manhattan. I discern Motherwell’s influence in Smith’s ‘Agricola’ series. They would have been started flat on the floor or bench before being welded and lifted upright. Later there are photographs of Smith arranging steel scrap on the studio floor, kicking it around, sometimes within a white painted rectangle, then hauled up to continue the work. Like Motherwell’s torn paper shapes, Smith shows that abstract sculpture can be begun with pieces and shapes that congeal together as though they had fallen out of a tipper truck.
Collage was made by Motherwell for the rest of his life and good though they are, they do not have the newness of discovery and intensity of the early work. Many use special papers and labels that he has collected, which tell us about his taste in fine wine and travels to interesting places. I could do without that, but the printing serves to add contrast to the paper, as newsprint did for Picasso, and as political sarcasm and jokes did for Schwitters.
Motherwell’s best art comes towards the end of his life with the ‘Open’ series of paintings. Monochrome expanses or slightly variegated colour brushed on large canvases are enervated by simple drawing in charcoal or black oil pastel. These are often open rectangles where one expects to see a closed form, but it leads the eye to the colour and then back again. It is as though he has applied the lessons of his early collage, one material modified by another, to come up with very different and original art. Miss Guggenheim did a service for abstract art when she took on board such a young artist.