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 But these days, much has changed, including the potato fields that have been replaced by dense clusters of beach homes.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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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