An artist who readily quoted Kierkegaard? Actually, Robert Motherwell always resisted his media image, the ex-Ivy League graduate student who is a philosopher-intellectual before he is an artist.
By Gerald Peary
It’s the Robert Motherwell centenary year, though the artist, born in 1915, only lived until 1991. He died at age 76 in Provincetown, Ma., where he’d come many summers to paint. It was in P-Town where I once interviewed him, in the summer of 1984 on a freelance assignment for the Chicago Tribune. My pitch for a story was that an ambitious retrospective of Motherwell’s paintings and collages was touring the country. The exhibit began at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, with stops in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, then back East to the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. The final destination would be in New York at the Guggenheim Museum, planned to coincide with Motherwell’s 70th birthday in January, 1985. At that time, only he and Willem de Kooning were alive and working of the first generation of Abstract Expressionist painters.
“I’m very pleased that the Albright-Knox initiated the retrospective because they have been committed to Abstract Expressionism since the beginnings,” Motherwell said, as we sat in his Provincetown studio on an August afternoon. “All the same, it seems strange to see lots of one’s own work in a museum, because someone else had made their collage out of your painting.”
Because of health reasons, Motherwell had kept an eye from afar on the hangings of the retrospective. He had asked for blueprints of the museums, and also installation photos, and he had provided suggestions along the tour route based on miniature models. He took the presentation of his art extremely seriously.
“At the three museums on the West Coast, the retrospective had to be cut down for reasons of space to 80 percent and then 60 percent. Yet through rigorous editing, the exhibition may have become better proportioned, more focused. Or maybe not? Next to the clutter of the studio, any museum feels like a gleaming, well-kept hospital. But then I’m a messy, disorganized man.” After two months ill in bed at his Greenwich, Connecticut winter home, Motherwell said, “I had a tremendous painting streak. I painted steadily for three months, barely leaving the studio.” The result: 22 new collages would constitute a fall 1984 show in New York at M. Knoedler & Co., a prelude to the Guggenheim retrospective.
“I’ve just found a marvelous title for a joyful collage,” Motherwell announced. “It’s two lines from a Charles Olson poem: ‘How to dance/sitting down.’ They’re a perfect metaphoric equivalent for a lighthearted, summery-colored abstraction.” He sat across from me in what I recognized as his everyday Provincetown garb: cotton shorts and a preppy polo shirt. “Wearing blue jeans doesn’t necessarily make an artist,” he joked.
Though committed to our interview, Motherwell confessed to being distracted and anxious. He was feeling lingering effects from his winter illness, and he had so many summer projects. Which of these should be his priorities? As we talked, he chainsmoked, fretting about what he labeled “the eternal problem of expressive choices.” Motherwell explained: “Kierkegaard called it ‘the despair of the aesthetic.’ If there are a thousand beautiful possibilities, how do you choose one more than another? Certainly not arbitrarily.” But despite the anguish, Motherwell clearly lived to paint. After a lifetime of painting. “Almost every artist feels most oneself in the studio. And to feel ‘most oneself’ opposes alienation and depression.”
An artist who readily quoted Kierkegaard? Actually, Motherwell always resisted his media image, the ex-Ivy League graduate student who is a philosopher-intellectual before he is an artist. “People say, ‘How can a philosopher have become such a sensual painter?’ They don’t know that I was painting constantly at age 3. At 10, I won an award for the most beautiful kite in a Los Angeles County competition, and, at age 12, a fellowship to the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles.
“When I was 12 or 13, I drew the Sistine Chapel panel by panel, and also lots of Rembrandt and Rubens. I would bicycle five miles to a church to draw marble statues. Between 14 and 17, it was all Baroque drawings. But in 1932-33, when I was 17, I saw my first Matisses, the first modern pictures I’d seen in real life. They went through me like an arrow. They still do.”
But even earlier, he’d become disaffected painting in a representational manner. A class with a Cezanne-influenced teacher at the California School of Fine Arts didn’t succeed when the 13-year-old boy artist turned away from bowls of apples and oranges. Motherwell’s only formal painting class at Stanford was another uneasy experience. “The teacher told me that I was too coarse to be in painting. He was a very fastidious artist. We had to do landscapes and I didn’t enjoy it at all.”
Motherwell spoke often of the enlightened bargain between father and son in the mid-1930s, the depth of the Depression, when he graduated Stanford. If the young artist would start on a Ph.D. so he could fall back on teaching, Motherwell, Sr., would provide him $50 a week. “My father was a banker, an establishment figure who might have been out of Buddenbrooks. Though he believed everyone should follow his star, he was worried I would be shipwrecked. He took a dim view of my being a painter.” Claiming his stipend, Motherwell, Jr., spent a year at Harvard researching a thesis on the journals of Delacroix. Then he dropped out and moved to New York in 1940. “It was exactly the right moment for a young artist, a historic situation that may never be repeated.” He met the American painters from the 1930s WPA projects and the European Surrealists fleeing Hitler, especially at the fall of France.
Motherwell was inspired by the Surrealists’ creative principle of “psychic automatism,” free association, high-level “doodling.” But compared to the Europeans, he painted more abstractly, believing that, as he told me, “images must be transformed plastically before they are paintings.” He looked especially to Joan Miro, then a lesser-known Surrealist. “Miro was the great painter of the generation after Picasso, especially between 1924-1930,” Motherwell said. “With those incomparably original, emptyish pictures, there was nobody close to him. His art had to do with improvisation, spontaneity, daring juxtapositions, imagery that was metaphorical, not literal. Abstract Expressionism had certain parallel aspirations.”
In 1943, Peggy Guggenheim asked Motherwell, William Baziotes, and Jackson Pollock to contribute to the first American exhibition of collages at her Art of This Century Gallery. Their all-star company for the New York show would be Picasso, Miro, Braque, Arp, Ernst.
Motherwell recalled, “Pollock and I didn’t really know much about collage except that you pasted things on. We were both intimidated by the project, and we decided to try it together. Pollock has a professional loft, so we went to his place. It was just one afternoon. I brought over some bright-colored papers that I had collected in Mexico. Pollock had a box of little objects, and he spread out a heap of them. We began to paste papers and paint them. I remember one collage I made at Pollock’s suggestion which included an amber-glass, star-shaped button. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to put a three-dimensional thing in a collage.”
Pollock quickly abandoned the collage form. Motherwell embraced it. “I felt a magical release. I took to it, as they say, as a duck to water.” Many hundreds of collages later, he declared, “Collage is a great invention of the 20th century, whether in a TV commercial, a poem by Marianne Moore, a cubist work, a Fellini movie. Everything can be collaged. One has the whole world and human history as subject matter. And it’s a necessary invention. Collage is the only way one can refer to everything one knows in a single picture. As Balanchine said, ‘None of us create. What we do assemble what is out there.’”
It was forty years before our Provincetown interview, 1944, that Motherwell was given by Peggy Guggenheim a one-person show at the Art of This Century Gallery of both paintings and collages. “A deep regret is that my father died before my first exhibition and never knew that I was anything but a student. I had come from a university world into this public exposure. I hardly knew what 57th St. was. I don’t remember whether there was wine. But it was sheer anxiety.”
For Motherwell, the anxiety never subsided, even when, by the time I’d talked to him, he had art works selling for millions of dollars. I recall seeing him standing alone at a Provincetown party a few days after the interview. I went up and talked to him, and his tenseness was palpable. He was not having a good time. He told me that he was in the middle of a new painting and he hadn’t resolved it.
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess