Abstract Critical

Robert Motherwell: The East Hampton Years 1944-52

Written by Phyllis Tuchman, Sam Cornish

In Beige with Sand, 1945, oil on cardboard with sand and wood veneer collage, 44-7/8 x 35” St. Louis Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Pulitzer Jr. ©VAGA, NY

In Beige with Sand, 1945, oil on cardboard with sand and wood veneer collage, 44-7/8 x 35”, St. Louis Art Museum,
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Pulitzer Jr. ©VAGA, NY

Sam Cornish: Can you briefly describe Motherwell’s time in the East Hamptons, where he lived and for how long? What was the area like at the time? 

Phyllis Tuchman: As late as 1980, there were sections of The Hamptons that were still rather rustic. On the way to The Springs, there was even a gas station that could have been painted by Edward Hopper during the nineteen thirties. But these days, much has changed, including the potato fields that have been replaced by dense clusters of beach homes. During the summer of 1944 when Motherwell and his first wife lived in Amagansett, the village, despite its facing the ocean, was rural and country-like. The next year, the couple had a Main Street rental in East Hampton. It’s still a lovely place to be. By 1947, the Motherwells were living at the corner of Georgica Lane and Jericho Road in a house Pierre Chareau designed for them from two salvaged Quonset huts. Every time I drive past there, I’m bathed in green and blue. It’s a quiet spot that back in the day would have been beneath a canopy of stars every evening. By the time Motherwell sold his compound to Barney Rossett, owner and publisher of The Grove Press, at the end of 1953, he was married to his second wife and had kids.

Line Figure in Beige and Mauve, 1946, Oil on canvas board, 30 x 21 7/8”, Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT ©VAGA, NY

Line Figure in Beige and Mauve, 1946, Oil on canvas board, 30 x 21 7/8”, Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT ©VAGA, NY

SC: You quote the introduction for Motherwell’s first solo exhibition in the USA, which refers to the influence of the colour of the Pacific Southwest where he was born and raised. Can a similar influence from the East Hamptons environment be discerned? 

PT: There are several paintings in the exhibition that specifically relate to the East End landscape. However, had Robert Motherwell not indicated that this was the case, I think no one would ever have made the appropriate connections. Take In Beige with Sand, which once was called Abstraction with Scallops. The Abstract Expressionist noted “the colors have to do with the sand and sea in winter.” Once identified, you can make out a large scallop with the muscles that would have attached it to a shell. Otherwise, you’d assume it’s a circle. Motherwell also once compared the orange ground of The Poet to “a reddened and angry sky at the end of the day.”

The Poet, 1947, Oil and pasted papers on paperboard, 55-5/8 x 39-1/8", Collections of Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, ©VAGA, NY

The Poet, 1947, Oil and pasted papers on paperboard, 55-5/8 x 39-1/8″, Collections of Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, ©VAGA, NY

This past spring Sotheby’s sold In Blue with Crosses, a Motherwell painting from 1947 that had a section covered with crosses. You could have assumed these marks were abstract geometric shapes. Except there’s an old cemetery with headstones dating back to the early years of the 1800s near the abstractionist’s former Chareau-designed house and studio. Hmm.

The Red Skirt, 1947, From the Series, Personages. Oil on composition board, 48 x 24", Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, ©VAGA, NY

The Red Skirt, 1947, From the Series, Personages. Oil on composition board, 48 x 24″, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, ©VAGA, NY

SC: Are there problems in tying an artist with international, even universal ambitions to a particular locality? 

PT: Why? The first image that jumped into my mind when I read this question were the pictures of piers that preceded Mondrian’s plus and minus series. I once had a terrific conversation with Richard Diebenkorn about an airplane flight he had taken where he saw Clyfford Still-like images when he looked out the window at the ground below. I had just mentioned to him being amazed by the snow-covered cliffs that in the winter surround Washington State University, a school in Pullman that Still attended. The show at Guild Hall — and the accompanying book — should inspire scholars to rethink the opening salvos of Abstract Expressionism.

Ulysses, 1947-51, Oil on board, 37-1/2 x 29-1/2”, Montclair Art Museum, Museum purchase; National Endowment for the Arts Museum Purchase Plan ©VAGA, NY

Ulysses, 1947-51, Oil on board, 37-1/2 x 29-1/2”, Montclair Art Museum, Museum purchase; National Endowment for the Arts Museum Purchase Plan ©VAGA, NY

SC: You write ‘there is more variety among his paintings at this time than in all the other decades of his career put together’. What do you feel was gained, and what lost, in Motherwell switch to large scale, serial formats? 

Of the many new issues Robert Motherwell: The East Hampton Years, 1944-52 raises, this is Numero Uno. I can’t wait until others weigh in on this topic.

The Voyage, 1949, Oil and tempera on paper mounted on composition board, 48 x 94”, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller, 1955 ©VAGA, NY

The Voyage, 1949, Oil and tempera on paper mounted on composition board, 48 x 94”, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller, 1955 ©VAGA, NY

SC: In relation to the paintings he made whilst studying in Paris Motherwell wrote that ‘the simplest technical problems defeated me’, whilst reviewers of his early exhibitions referred to him as an amateur artist. Are these qualities evident in the work? Did Motherwell use his inability to his advantage?

PT: Back then, Motherwell’s works may have seemed amateurish. But are they, really? You don’t win a citywide art competition, especially in a metropolitan center like Los Angeles, at the age of eleven if you don’t have a high level of accomplishment. I love the idea that as a youngster Motherwell attended Otis on the scholarship he was awarded just a few months after Jackson Pollock’s brother Charles left to come East.

Put Motherwell’s early nineteen forties paintings next to abstractions by other Americans from this period and his works look incredibly sophisticated.

Black Figuration on Blue, 1950, Oil on Masonite, 35-1/2 x 47-1/2", Grand Rapids Art Museum, Museum Purchase, Kate P. Wolters Family in memory of Richard Wolters, and Gift of Dedalus Foundation ©VAGA, NY

Black Figuration on Blue, 1950, Oil on Masonite, 35-1/2 x 47-1/2″, Grand Rapids Art Museum, Museum Purchase, Kate P. Wolters Family in memory of Richard Wolters, and Gift of Dedalus Foundation ©VAGA, NY

SC: What are for you the most surprising and the most revealing paintings in the exhibition?

Let’s begin with The Voyage, the masterpiece owned by MoMA. If you’re a Matisse person, it’s hard not to notice connections with Bathers by the River. Especially the black and white banding. It’s pretty easy to ignore the fact that Motherwell described painting this panel during a blizzard in December 1949, starting to work at night and ending the next morning. It was dark when he began painting and light when he stopped. Black and white! Too obvious for words!! I’m in love with In Beige with Sand. Its two different titles stress different aspects of the work. You either see scallops or circles. The large shape in Line Figure in Beige and Mauve reminded me of an archaic Greek vase featuring primitive characters. When I discovered the artist studied with Margarete Bieber at Columbia, I laughed.

Wall Painting III, 1952, Oil on fiberboard, 48 x 72", Smithsonian American Art Museum ©VAGA, NY

Wall Painting III, 1952, Oil on fiberboard, 48 x 72″, Smithsonian American Art Museum ©VAGA, NY

Last autumn, I was mesmerized by The Poet in the collage show at the Guggenheim. I am still enchanted by its bold color and its extraordinary layering of pasted papers. Chalk one up for the Americans! No one my age had ever seen the Whitney’s The Red Skirt in person. Wow!! Plus this is another example where you assume abstract geometry rules (although, in the end, that is the point). I was surprised when I realised this dramatic portrait of his wife, a Mexican actress, has her wearing the sort of skirt Frida Kahlo has made famous. And then, there is Interior with Pink Nude, the painting on the cover of the catalogue. So much more to explore. Abstract Expressionism is not a closed book!!!

Phyllis Tuchman is the curator of Robert Motherwell: The East Hampton Years 1944-52, Guild Hall, East Hampton, 9th August – 13th October


  1. anthony seymour said…

    Stott you really don’t know when to stop after your vile faux pas in the first place and to cut the chase it does not sound as if you have ever even seen an er, Motherwell.
    I won’t be calling nurse, albeit you are sickeningly warped and not so clued-up at all I fear so I won’t respond again as you might as well not exist from where I am.

  2. anthony seymour said…

    A “film” exists?!?

    Surprise surprise if Peter Stott says so!

    At least you have shaken the Ab.Crit. clique out of its self-congratulatory knitting circle even if by ugly means with an innocent victim in Motherwell.

    If its an omelette worth serving maybe there should be an article on your art if its not too dangerous and you might be possibly a real artist?

    • Anthony Seymour said…

      Dear Peter,

      “Picasso in Origami Heaven as a rubic cube if there is karma” sounds bizarre or zealous effrontery distracting from serious achievement and the poignancy of your own possibly deeply hurt psyche.

      Pablo is no doubt in a well deserved Pussy Heaven…..

      Its possible to surmise you might have got on very well with De Kooning tearing around his neighbourhood boasting about being profoundly ****struck to be honest!

      As regards your concern and indignation of so much contemporary degeneracy perhaps you would have felt agreement with one of Schnabel’s recent outcry’s on canvas included in his retrospective until last month at the Dairy Art Centre in London, “Fifteen Years Old and Surrounded by Pigs” criticisng the Fashion Industry…..

      To end aptly and come full circle, Motherwell wrote about “The Despair of the Aesthetic” and yet he could sometimes bash out some tumbling canvases with a passion….!

      I enjoyed reading your nineteenth-century-style-rants.

      You are by far the liveliest commentator on Ab.Crit. and who is to say if you might have an article or so in you(?) with some tweeking, if they would be willing to publish it and if you want to write so gutsy!!!!!

      • Peter Stott said…

        Seymour, I am not the subject of the conversation, the point I am making is that a lot of art imagery is demented and perverted, like these early Motherwell pictures, as I see them and that ‘abstraction’ is some sort of cover-all excuse for that. What about Cecily Brown and her cut-up writhing contortions or the work of Francis Bacon? It’s OK to work out one’s diabolical fixations with art? I’m choosing a debating position, like everyone else, I’ve seen images like this around for years.
        If one sees these images as ‘real’ then they are extremely strange and one wonders why they are treasured by the state i.e. the Tate’s holdings of Bacon’s work. Metaphors? Satires of WW2? The horrors of war have created imagery far worse, one only has to visit the World Press Photo annual show in London to see really really shocking stuff.
        The creation of images is taboo in certain cultures and one doesn’t know exactly the price to pay for that, regarding any kind of God backlash. Nobody knows for sure, but a culture that values Bacon as human expression, seems to me, to be demonic. If one takes drugs and looks at art, then art can become real as part of the mediation of reality via the senses, so in that sense, a Bacon or a Brown painting can become ‘real’, animated with spirit, the work of art literally becoming alive as such. In that sense, the work of art comes into being. I wonder how many artists actually road test their products before letting them loose on a sensitive audience. We’ve all been conditioned to think that such things as Bacon’s oeuvre is OK, to be respected even, cos it’s art, the works are ‘well painted’ but is exploding humans ‘abstracted’ OK? I wouldn’t want my children to see them, if I had any.

  3. anthony seymour said…

    Stott mentioned Ansel Krut.

    This is even more odd as a vicious attack!

    I met Krut circa 2007 & he was the first to admit his early work was not very good. He is not a creep & his honesty was refreshing. Most people talent-spotted & fast-tracked would be entirely closed-off, but Krut was not like that at all.

    However, what is interesting about Stott is his lack of reverence on AbstractCritical. This is unusual here, transcending his foul slander.

    Speaking for myself, Motherwell’s famous Elegies are actually curious failures, although there are plenty of other canvases and some of them most confident achievements.

    About a year or so ago an exhibition of Motherwell prints at Bernard Jacobson Gallery was recommended to me by Nick Moore. The irony was that fortunately I only got to see it because I was due in London that day to support an exhibition of conservative paintings by a well-meaning establishment artist. The Motherwell show had few visitors, but surprisingly as one other more serious refugee from the conservative show, who turned up afterwards to catch the Motherwells, pointed out, it was frustrating we could never get all those other folks, let alone the other artist, to look at Motherwell!

    I think Stott is very intelligent but a lost soul but he cannot help it poor man if he has gone all wrong and life is too short………

    • Robert Linsley said…

      lack of reverence is not so unusual – in fact I wonder if Peter Stott is really just a fiction, an invention of Robin Greenwood.

      • anthony seymour said…

        Hold on a minute lads – I’ve got an idea:


        The Movie!!!

      • Peter Stott said…

        Well, there is the movie.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Sorry Robert, I’ve been on holiday without a computer – proof positive that Mr. Stott is not my invention. Besides, you couldn’t make him up.

      • Peter Stott said…

        I’m a wierder creation than a society that has as its most esteemed products those ‘three ‘figures’ at the base of the crucifix’ by Francis Bacon? What is that about (and the rest of his work)? A culture that values such things as the representative expression of itself. I dread to think.

      • Peter Stott said…

        Let’s not forget here, we’re talking about cultural products of ‘abstraction’, so valued as representations of that culture, as to be each worth 400 years of the time of the average man (assuming an average wage of £25,000 a year). 400 years of endeavour of the average man, per creation.

    • Peter Stott said…

      People thought Rolf Harris was a nice man when they met him. Krut’s work is both demented and perverted. What kind of person makes stuff like that?
      Seems to be it’s cool to like such stuff,like it’s cool to be liberal, liking all things and all people, this is the art life, you can handle any image, laugh in the face of all visual squalor, beyond morality and mere mortal’s notions of good and evil. Go and get yer perverted sensations looking at 50 arseholes painted in a grid pattern, on a rack with babies’s eyes in-between. That’s your ideal of the cutting edge? That’s the kind of squalid imagery Krut is involved in, imagery of that type.

      • Peter Stott said…

        I’m sure anyone sane would worship our material world in preference to the image worlds and objects of art such as this. If the makers of such pictures ever have to go to their worlds created they’d be in big trouble, it would be a nightmare they’d want to wake up from. Art for spooks, that’s what I say :-)

      • Anthony Seymour said…

        Nobody is seriously riled by all this toxic rot Peter.

        You have skewed things completely.

        Ansel Krut has nothing in common with Rolf Harris at all for God’s Sake! Why do you seem to have some sort of vendetta with this Krut?

        Actually please don’t answer that because its a strange abyss probably for you…..

        You are right people were empty-headed to adore Rolf and it was obnoxious how they all seemed to think he was so cool and drooled no doubt over his awful daubs in Harrods oddly enough once upon a time!

        Worse still his evil portrait-in-drag as our Queen which so many fools seemed to think was lovely and all the stupid regional museum directors who queued up to put it on tour and bring in the zombie crowds – It was sickening and an insult to Her Majesty as victim, all the suckers who fell for it and even poor drag queens!

        For what it is worth I don’t even like Krut’s paintings very much and could never feel why he was always selected to be “successful” although I don’t think it has anything to do so much with your line of thought and unlike you, he is quite an ordinary chap to talk with, but who knows maybe you are a better artist if somewhat volatile to put it politely?

        Bye Bye and Take Care

      • Peter Stott said…

        Picasso’s now in oregami heaven as a rubic cube if karma ever caught up with him.

  4. anthony seymour said…

    Stott’s awful satire reminds me of Tom Wolfe reckoning De Kooning could not draw a cat properly.

    Apparently Joan Mitchell was disappointed that Motherwell-Frankenthaler-Greenberg proscribed against gestural painters and used powerful influence to stop them exhibiting or selling & most effectively permanently destroy careers.

    Now I remember Peter Fuller writing Schnabel seemed a “retarded adolescent” to him, but at least Robbie Hughes just thought he was a “dancing hippopotamus”…..and “painfully sincere!”

    • Peter Stott said…

      You’re deluded, but if you want to like 5th rate work, that’s your business. The work is awful, the derisory comments about it, fully justified. No gestural, painterly or draughtmanship skill evident.

      • Peter Stott said…

        And that’s not to mention the psychologically twisted, perverted nature of the results. It’s art for creeps, like Ansel Krut. Ordinarily people like that should be sectioned under the mental health act.

      • anthony seymour said…

        Fascinating – because Motherwell can be an acquired taste and perhaps he is sometimes disappointing but there is some strong work as well. You are almost onto something if only you were not so vindictive and in danger some people could take you literally. You should take care not to whirl much further completely over the edge and not in a good way at all…..Although its true some of the most engaging writing by nineteenth century critics often seemed the nastiest and Motherwell would probably know all about that as a Francophile and forgive you…..

  5. Peter Stott said…

    A belief in fairies and Father Christmas is more healthy than a belief in this demented junk. How anyone was been fooled into valuing this, God only knows. Just goes to show how the majority are in thrall to the spurious nature of art history. At least with Debuffet the primitive drawings are motifs for some fine paintwork as a route into the transcendental architectonic, but these offer nothing at all.
    Think of form, the Buddhist temples of Kyoto, aircraft carriers and military jets, think of all the fabulous form one has encountered, drooled over, even. AND THEN TO THIS??!!!! It’s cretinous and backward, like I said, it’s demented junk.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      (to quote from Twitter) A little more lemonade in the shandy, Peter?

    • Robert Linsley said…

      drooling over aircraft carriers and military jets? Is that perverse or merely puerile?

      • Peter Stott said…

        Spirit embodied in matter, God manifest as objects. If you can’t get off on seeing an SU-47, you’re never ever going to access the SUPER GLAMOUR OBJECT OF TRANSCENDENTAL PERCEPTION. You’re not like Seymour and prefer De-Kooning’s ‘Women’ to fab hairy pussy are you? Some of the most vile paintings ever created. There must be some ugly women in your neighbourhood if those twisted creations take your fancy. As they say in the N.E., ‘The tide wouldn’t take them out’

    • John Holland said…


      • Peter Stott said…

        Seriously… Take the medication John, because you’ve been overpowered by a disease called art history. In fact to question it, is considered to be an affliction. I suggest a medication, the ‘herbal incense’ Exodus Damnation. Buy it online now before it’s banned. After a smoke of that you’ll see De Kooning’s cut-up aircrash victim diabolica for what it really is. And then you’ll be scared, I mean really scared. You’ll beg for mercy as if Islamic State had just entered your living room, no kidding. I did. And yet… Like all other artists, one is involved in the drama creation of making art and wondering what one has created.

      • Peter Stott said…

        Don’t do it, though.

  6. John Daly said…

    This is a nice piece, some lovely insights into what for most people are the lesser known paintings. I have remortgaged my house to buy his paintings and am very happy to have done so, they bring me a lot of joy and keep me thinking. There are now many so-called star artists out there but many of them have little depth after one cuts through the loud of hype surrounding them, Motherwell has something special!

  7. Patrick Jones said…

    Is there something about Motherwell which makes him especially relevant today? He was ultra-sophisticated,lacked the immeadiate talent of Pollock ,and yet wouldnt put up with just being a great critic and occasional painter.He had to go the whole hog and be the existential hero .He once described himself as a heavy,awkward body with a poets mind. Terry Frost once confided to me similarly ,the difficulties of painting collage ,sticking things together,ending badly.And yet ,despite his technical problems,a painting like Motherwells DUBLIN 1916 Black and Tan is a masterpiece of Modern Painting ,both in colour and political nous,as are the Spanish Elegies.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      A good question. Something great about Motherwell, and something tiresome. Maybe his work embodies abstraction itself in a way.

    • anthony seymour said…

      It sounds naive but perhaps he was an amateur in the best sense he did love doing art.

      But going further there is this palpable maturity in his stuff embracing contrary-wise experiences & processes.

      Whereas its odd and boring how self-declared-figurative & even professional-artists-as-such seem to actually believe some high-ground in un-sophistication so they say directly even that metaphor and irony are unethical or pretentious!!!!

      Whereas I wonder what Motherwell instead would have felt about Basquiat for example as someone new with a unique way of looking and observing the world transcending the individual or struggling with truth but also sort of picking up on things left by pre-drip Pollock and Heron-influenced Davie, etc?

      As if there is a feeling of something in Motherwell to do with awareness of the “other” yet his own work perhaps seemed period or dated – but then you think oh!That can’t be right! And because his paintings are actually very beautiful experiences I am nowadays surprised by them!

      There must be some kind of essence to Motherwell.

      • anthony seymour said…

        Just remembered I was only reading last week a tribute written by Motherwell in 1971 about David Smith where he said its as it should be generations are different, his generation “wanted it warm” whereas at the time Motherwell was writing he felt the current generation “wants it cool” but in terms of these cycles and all the troubles always in the world…..Motherwell offers something better(?) and its like Henry Miller writing about Matisse or qualities in direction…..

  8. Brian R. said…

    I enjoy the paintings, I also found the article interesting and as a result, know more about the author and his influences.

  9. Robert Melzmuf said…

    I think most of us form a mental picture of one’s work at the mere mention of a painter’s name; it’s natural. Pollock, Kline, Mitchell, Bacon; you see it, right?
    The point in the interview seems to be remember the influences, artistic or other, that comes into a painter’s work; in this case, Motherwell in the Hamptons.
    These influences are part of his development but do we need to know them? Isn’t looking at paintings enough? Sand or scallops; I can’t imagine caring enough to learn the difference.

    • anthony seymour said…

      Smouldering browns, intense ochres, lively blues…..All with a clarity or punchy spatial dynamism, but is Motherwell part of now or maybe his poetry is the imaginative past(?), because it does not seem so sophisticated in a way next to Warhol or Richard Prince or Christopher Wool but then they seem to forfeit some kind of black “Duende!”