PRINT September 1965

An Interview with Robert Motherwell

Q. In what areas do you consider that there may have been misunderstandings or falsifications of the period of Abstract Expressionism?

A. Many. The least distorted account I’ve seen is Arnason’s, in the catalog to the Guggenheim’s “Abstract Expressionist and Imagist” show . . . But even his account has the limitation that for an awful lot of what happened, there’s no documentation existing.

Q. But what were the specific misapprehensions of the period—thematic, historical, conceptual?

A. One historical misunderstanding is to assume that all the Abstract Expressionists appeared at once, like so many Venuses from the sea. Most people nowadays, for instance, presume that K. or V. were among the “founding fathers”; in fact, they appeared in the second wave. The first wave, let us say, the “old guard,” all first showed at Peggy Guggenheim’s in the early forties. First Pollock, then myself and Baziotes and David Hare, and in the next months, Hofmann, Rothko, Gottlieb, and Still (Gorky too, but I have always thought of him, as he thought of himself, as an orthodox Surrealist). The splendid second wave came around 1949–50, mainly showing in Charles Egan’s gallery: de Kooning, Kline, Guston, Siskind, Tworkov; and Barnett Newman and Stamos and Tomlin at Betty Parsons’. Also Brooks and Yunkers. Immediately on the heels of the second wave, in the early fifties, came a third wave, of a generation much younger, Parker, Frankenthaler, Mitchell, Francis, Diebenkorn, Hartigan, et al. By 1953, ten years after the beginning, everyone felt himself to be in the act; by 1963 everyone of the second wave tended to behave as though they were the first wave; and both the second and third waves tended to distort—with some notable exceptions—e.g. Kline, Newman, Frankenthaler and others—the original impulses of “the old guard.”

An important circumstance was Clement Greenberg’s temperamental antipathy to Surrealism. As the first art critic committed to Abstract Expressionism, and especially to Pollock, he was unable emotionally to conceive of the deep relation between Abstract Expressionism and the Surrealists’ theory of “automatism,” i.e., “doodling,” the theory of which was introduced into the American milieu in the very early forties by Matta. Although I emphasize Surrealist creativity I realize that I should remark that my enthusiasms among living artists in 1940 were Matisse, Picasso, Brancusi and, a little later, Miró, Klee, Mondrian and David Smith. So Surrealism did not represent my taste.

Q. How do you think this entered as a misunderstanding in the idea of the period? This ignorance of Surrealism?

A. One has to use historical imagination in relation to what New York was like before Abstract Expressionism—the end of the Depression. The sadness, somberness of the scene then (1940) for young modernists. All kinds of talents were around, but lethargic. Picking up the surface of Parisian pictures, not the creative impulses. You must remember, too, that most of the modernist artists went on the WPA in the thirties, which was dominated by leftist politics, so that they had a double difficulty, remoteness from living European practitioners, and hostility here, “on the job.” The Surrealists’ presence brought hope, inspiration, action; they searched out the young among poets and painters.

Q. How was this interest in radical impulses, political and social, and the esthetic values of French painting, conciliated during the time?

A. It wasn’t (though Shahn thought he had!). One of the things that characterizes the people who came to be the best-known Abstract Expressionists was a deep reaction against anything that had any political content whatsoever.

Q. What is your understanding of the relation of American to French painting prior to the emigration of the French painters here during the war?

A. The ten or twelve major Abstract Expressionists—one knows who they are—were mostly oriented to the Ecole de Paris. Specifically, to Picasso, or Matisse, or both, in my opinion, in most cases. But you should ask each his own views.

Q. What kind of relationship was it psychologically? Was it an easy, joyful one, were there difficult emotional problems, professional doubts, provincial-cosmopolitan syndromes? What did they think of Paris, as the War began?

A. One of the things that struck me then was how little general interest there was in Paris per se. When I first began to love Parisian painting, as an adolescent, it occurred to me that this painting was part of a cultural milieu, not that there happened to be a lot of gifted men in one place. And I set about teaching myself modern French culture as best I could. I also spent a year, 1938–39, in Paris, before New York.

Q. Do you consider that American painting ultimately rejected the tenets of French culture, as manifested in painting, during the forties?

A. The moment the Americans were able to participate in what is potentially a universal experience, exactly at that same moment, the Parisians began to renounce it. American painting became much stronger by becoming internationalized, and French painting simultaneously became much weaker—by becoming nationalistic. What is specifically “American” is the violence . . .

Q. How was Surrealism, taken in whatever way, a component of the civilization you say American art was evolving?

A. . . . What seemed to me to be the situation in the beginning of the 1940s was that there was all the talent to create first-rate works of art, but that there wasn’t a creative principle, a rationale. An aspect of Surrealism provided it.

Q. What, in your opinion, were the agents, or the catalysts, which brought those men from the category of imitation to that of mature expression?

A. The principle of Surrealist “automatism.” In standard English it really means, in the way we ultimately adopted it, a form of “doodling.” But you have to think of doodling in Abstract Expressionism as on the scale Michelangelo would have doodled, or Rubens . . . To me, the question of the subconscious as uncontrolled abandon never was an issue. I think doodling is one of the alternative ways of drawing. Paul Klee, after his maturity, invariably begins with doodling. I know that all the classic Tanguys began as doodles . . . Many Max Ernsts did. All Mirós do. All Arps do. According to his son, Jean, Renoir began his pictures with color-spot doodles, and then turned them into girls, still-lifes or landscapes. There are many, many ways of doing it. “Doodling” as a form of “psychic automatism,” as the Surrealists called it (what we would call free association) is only one way of treating association, true. The difficulty of establishing the connection be­tween Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism is that Americans in general tend to detest the standard image of Surrealism—of Dali, and Magritte, and Max Ernst, etc. Their kind of psychic automatism has to do with the free association of ideas, or of objects, or of symbols. But there was another kind of automatism, in Klee (of his mature career), of Masson during the late twenties, and throughout the thirties, and Arp and Miró as well—which is to say, a plastic automatism, a kind of “doodling” that fundamentally respected the French tradition, that is, the Impressionist, Cubist, and Fauve traditions, of the picture-plane, of color, etc. . . . To put it another way, if one is interested in abstract art, and starts a priori to make an abstraction, the human mind seems to be monotonous and limited: one makes squares or circles or crosses or triangles. Basic, rudimentary geometric forms. Now, supposing you wanted to make an abstract picture, that’s to say, you wanted a picture that didn’t carry normal representation in it, but at the same time, you wanted an abstract picture as rich as nature. The only known means of doing it is through the various modes of automatism. The main means we picked up was linear, which, again, can most accurately be described as doodling. And, as Abstract Expressionism progressed, many people didn’t understand that this was the core of it. They thought other things were, and the doodles were often added afterward, to “look” Abstract Expressionist.

Q. What was the relation of this automatist “doodling,” as you put it, to that which later came to be know as the cult of the gesture?

A. Certain artists here constantly used to talk about painting as a form of “gesture.” (But I don’t think they meant it in the sense that Harold Rosenberg talks about “action” painting at all.) I think they must have meant that painting was, in some way, a ritualistic act. The “gesture” was, so to speak, that of an artist standing alone before the Absolute. In the early forties, I used as an epigraph to an article (I forget where), a line from Baudelaire, “Art is a duel in which the artist cries out in anguish before he is defeated.” But perhaps those who spoke of “gesture” meant the opposite, that one is not defeated in one’s manhood. You should ask them!

Q. Robert Goldwater wrote an article in “Quadrum,” in which he said that the advent of the European artists here during the war fertilized the American artists to a sense of purpose, and the sense that for the first time, they could be “painters” too. That there was this kind of knowledge of craft which was very important.

A. I don’t think it was a question of knowledge of craft, although what he said first is certainly true. It was more a question of daily life . . . There were twenty (I would think) celebrated European artists here during the war, and anybody who wanted to could join them walking the streets. Very few wanted to . . . From the European side, they felt very much like foreigners, aliens, throughout the war, and many of them immediately went back when the war was over. Julien Levy, Pierre Matisse, Dudensing, and Kurt Valentine had the great contemporary European galleries, Peggy Guggenheim, the Europa-American one. The Free French Canteen, designed by Pierre Chareau (who later designed a studio and house for me in East Hampton) was the international meeting-place.

Q. How did their presence affect you, as an artist? Did you have long discussions with any of them?

A. Yes. I knew very few American artists in the beginning. I came to New York about the same time the Europeans did, and, through Meyer Schapiro, came in contact with them. I really knew the European artists better than I knew the American artists—with the exception of Baziotes. Americans tended to be anti-intellectual. The Surrealists talked about ideas. And since I happened to be interested in ideas—since, despite Mallarmé, paintings are made of ideas, combined with a certain sensuality—I was more interested in the European talk than the American talk in the beginning. But after the early forties I preferred to talk to American artists because there had been a greater radical development here.

Q. Do you think this interfered with the lessons of the sensuality of European art, as far as they were concerned? Did they take up that sensuality as eagerly as you were interested in it yourself?

A. I think everybody most different there. The responses were individual. I would say that none of us, with the possible exception of Gorky, was as sensual as European art (but Gorky was a Surrealist).

Q. But would you say that there had been, shall I say, a “sensualizing” of Surrealism during the forties?

A. Perhaps, certainly in Miró. But for most of us, sensuality, to the degree that it existed, came mostly from Matisse or Picasso. And, I think, to this day, it is quite evident in Newman, Rothko, Tomlin, and de Kooning, not to mention myself. You must remember that American life is not as sensual as Europe’s. Which is why one vacations there, if one likes sensuality. I do.

Q. Were you conscious of polarities or schisms among the painters you knew, between the concept of large masses and synthesized forms, and more emotive ways of handling, spread out in episodes across the surface?

A. Not during the forties. Everyone was trying to make major works, which was more important than stylistic differences. The Great Unifier was mutual respect. In the fifties there was some schism, or, more accurately, choice between modes of life that increased or decreased one’s generalized sociability. Some were quite bohemian, some led more Matisselike lives, some were in-between. Practically everyone now has a house!

A serious schism, which I would not dwell on, because it is a fait accompli, was the effort of the more craftsmanlike second wave, not only to attain equal recognition with that of the “old guard,” (which was a legitimate aspiration from any point of view), but also to displace the old guard and even to rewrite history, so that Kline, for example (whom I admired as a painter and man), now has the image of being one of the original founders—when, in fact, he became an Abstract Expressionist around 1950, that is to say, about eight years after the “movement” began, an observation that is meant in no way to diminish the masterpieces that Kline made. Perhaps the art journalists were largely responsible; but, too, it was in the self-interest of the second wave, who mostly went along.

Q. What about the philosophical ambience of this time? Was there a general discussion of the role of art? What art could or should do? Who were the people who spoke along these lines?

A. There were constant discussions—about (now I use my terminology; different people use different terminology), about “passion,” for example. And then some artists sometimes talked about themselves as “Renaissance” painters. And by “Renaissance painters,” perhaps they meant painters dealing with the range of major human feelings. (Pollock was a separate case. I think he was essentially involved in explosion, in convulsion. I’ve often thought that his style developed out of his effort to crush his early Picasso-like pictures, which then developed on its own. In the same year that he was doing that, André Breton, the head of the Surrealists, was going around saying that “the art of the future will be convulsive.” Absolutely, literally, and programmatically.) On the foreign side, Surrealism, of course, took a position on everything. Mondrian’s and Leger’s followers were few but intense; loners like Chagall and Lipchitz had no influence, and were arrogant . . . to us. But yes, there were hundreds of discussions, enough to fill a library.

Q. Did the painters wish to express distinct feelings, did they think their attitudes were being specifically funneled into their work, or were they just talking about this theoretically?

A. I would have said “theoretically,” that the esthetic that was operating then was much closer to Mallarmé. The effort to express the content of human experience by indirection. Now, I am not so sure. As I grow older, I respect more and more the particular genius of my colleagues. Their uniqueness, I mean, in personal visions.

Q. I’m interested in the possible relations of American painting of this time with Symbolism as a movement. Do you think any existed?

A. I think they did, via the Surrealists. After all, Surrealism is one chapter in the history of French Symbolism. And so are Cubism and Dadaism.

Q. When do you think the element of Puritanism reasserted itself as an element of American art?

A. It was quite steadfast from the beginning. One has to choose between pleasure and reality as predominate, though not exclusively . . .

Q. Apropos of all this, wasn’t there a serious crisis concerning the application of color, a sensuous element?

A. We rarely talked, as I remember, about formal problems. It was about content problems. For example, when Rothko, Baziotes, Newman and I started a school in 1947–48 (the idea of the school was Clyfford Still’s, but he dropped out at the last moment and went back to California ), we called it “The Subjects of the Artist,” which was a rather clumsy and stupid name. But it was meant to emphasize that our painting was not abstract, that it was full of subject matter. In that sense, we taught traditional methods, but the real subjects were different. But there was no difference from the traditional notion of what painting is—the painting of a subject. But I don’t remember color as a subject. Black and white excited most of us more then.

Q. When you published your anthology of Dada materials in 1950, were you attempting to invoke the Dada experience in American art of the time?

A. It was part of an effort to teach myself Surrealism systematically. It was obvious that Dada was the older brother of Surrealism, and my original intention was to make a second volume on Surrealism.

Q. How can we speak of Dada as a constituent of Abstract Expressionism?

A. We all loved art, a most anti-Dada attitude. I doubt if any of the Abstract Expressionists read the book. One could imagine that it was Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns—to my surprise—who were the first to read it, but Johns says not. I know poets did. For their generation, the Dada book, which, after all, was a treasury of ideas, did, all the same, provide the next rationale.

Q. Your interest in Dada as a phenomenon was more historically oriented than creatively inspired?

A. Oh, yes. It never occurred to me that anyone would pick it up! Dada’s soul is political, and by 1950 it was evident that the West would solve poverty, ultimately.

Q. It strikes me that the atmosphere at the time, in 1950, didn’t permit any profit from Dada ideas.

A. If the politically revolutionary side had been emphasized, perhaps somehow. Max Ernst, immediately after the first war, published a Dada magazine that had an enormous public circulation. But the fact is that the people here, who were leftist politically (like their Russian cousins) in 1950, were representational painters. It didn’t occur to them that modern art could be used politically. And the new generation is non-political; like cats. Except George Segal.

Q. Was there, in your opinion, a natural arc of pressure and tension generating all kinds of excitement among the painters you mentioned, and then reaching its apogée, after which it leveled out? And if so, how, and why, and when?

A. I think we all have done increasingly deeper work. But the mass media use up everything, not only painting. But everything’s too fast.

Q. Did the historical consciousness of the Abstract Expressionists have more importance of one kind, and then lessen? And if so, what brought about that lessening?

A. If you asked what, in 1917, were the best pictures being made, I would say the last red Renoir nudes, Degas’ bronzes, Matisse’s paintings of that year, Cubism, and I would say, certain works of Dada. I don’t think history is only serial; I think events exist side by side, and that the various generations are simultaneous, to some extent. In this sense, though Abstract Expressionism has been followed by other movements, it is also now, in 1965, at the height of its creative powers. But David Smith is an ineffable loss.

Q. How does this square with your earlier statement that the artists needed some kind of principle or impetus which got them going? This doesn’t seem to exist anymore.

A. We got going! I think certain premises are relatively inexhaustible for a century or more, like the Impressionist tradition. One of them could be “abstract automatism.” (Which is what I think Abstract Expressionism should have been called.) And the newer artists have their vision too, though they seem more literary, or more technological than ours.

Q. Then what do we do with the idea of “action” and “gesture”?

A. Actually the notion of “action” is gratuitous. A critic’s finger in the stew. It was taken by Harold Rosenberg from a piece by Hulsenbeck. In the mid-forties, Wittenborn and Schultz asked me to edit a cultural magazine, dealing mainly with painting, and I felt very strongly that the various arts should be brought together. So I asked John Cage to edit a musical section, and Harold Rosenberg to edit a literary section. (Both Rosenberg’s and Paul Goodman’s pieces in that magazine are literary masterpieces.) At that time I was editing “Dada” proofs of Hulsenbeck’s which ultimately appeared in the Dada anthology as “En Avant Dada.” It was a brilliant piece . . . Harold came across the passage in proofs in which Hulsenbeck violently attacks literary esthetes, and says that literature should be action, should be made with a gun in the hand, etc. Harold fell in love with this section, which we then printed in the single issue that appeared of “Possibilities.” Harold’s notion of “action” derives directly from that piece. Of course this notion of “action” as opposed to estheticism is tailor-made to describe an aspect of de Kooning’s pictures; but to use it to characterize Abstract Expressionism is to belie the latter’s essential nature, and to diminish, incidentally, the stature of equally great painters such as Rothko and Newman. I honor Rosenberg’s devotion to de Kooning; still, neither “action” painting nor de Kooning himself are the “center” of Abstract Expressionism, but instead, like the rest of us, one dimension of it.

Q. What about, now, the other critical assumption about this painting, that it was a step in the affirmation of modernism, the affirmation of the plane, etc., as voiced by Greenberg? The early Greenberg pieces in “The Nation.” How did the artists respond?

A. Certainly Greenberg was the most respected critic, but, as Frank O’Hara likes to say, artists don’t respond to critics, critics respond to artists. I would say that to the degree we were all involved in modern art, what could be called the “Cubist conception of a picture” was assumed; pictures were mat, flat, the picture plane was respected, etc. What was crucial (and how!) was the development of the large format.

The large format, at one blow, destroyed the century-long tendency of the French to domesticize modern painting, to make it intimate. We replaced the nude girl and the French door with a modern Stonehenge, with a sense of the sublime and the tragic that had not existed since Goya and Turner. Brother! What a gesture! Perhaps, someday, when we no longer threaten our contemporaries, someone will write our Iliad with empathy. One of the great images, like Achilles’ shield, should be the housepainter’s brush, in the employ of a grand vision dominated by an ethical sensibility that makes the usual painter’s brush indeed picayune. How I admire my colleagues! So much, so that I begrudge the coming new world nothing, not even its predominance of lovely young bodies.