PRINT December 1965

Robert Motherwell

ONE WAS NOT CERTAIN whether it was the occasion or the art that mattered. Robert Motherwell was not only being honored by The Museum of Modern Art with a retrospective, but an era was at last being recognized in a way that it had not been before. On opening night, a momentary sense of unreality partially resolved itself into the awareness that Motherwell was the first “giant” of Abstract Expressionism to be honored by the museum in an atmosphere of seeming volition, even joy, rather than compulsion. Pollock had just died when his retrospective was assembled late in 1956 or early 1957. Gorky’s retrospective early in 1963 was compelled to reenact the passion of Abstract Expressionism while those ambivalent mercenaries, the Pop artists, were already erecting hot dog stands on the hallowed ground of “crisis.” The Tobey, Rothko and Hofmann retrospectives were arbitrarily hacked from the history of the movement while its hierarchy was crumbling. In Motherwell, however, the Modern found an artist as temperamentally French, or as continental, as itself, as opposed to an essentially plebeian hostility to cultivated standards, even when revolution was involved. The inevitability of their union is, therefore, tempered by the logic of it.

The problem however, is, that their mutuality, which seems like an alliance for (further) progress in American art while “boom” thinking prevails, turns out to represent something far more reactionary. For while there is no doubt that Motherwell at the present moment is right for the Museum, and the Museum is right for Motherwell, the fact is that both have operated with such caution as to become the conservatives, and not conservators, of the avant-garde. Both have experienced evolutions which have transformed a revolution in style into an institution of taste whose respectability depends for its distinction upon the echo of protest. Both conform where they once astonished, both confirm rather than discover, both are now institutions whose historical pedigrees are as unquestionable as they are—increasingly—ironic. Finally, and perhaps most revealing, both approach art in a hope for adventure that always leads back to the pleasure principle. Thus while their ideological parallelism accounts for the triumph of the exhibition as an occasion, it also explains why it wasn’t entirely real. It comes too late to be topical, too soon to be historical. As it turns out, the same might be said in other terms of Motherwell’s achievement as a whole.

From the beginning Motherwell has willingly endured the most virulent case of Francophilism of his generation. From his early and still impressive Pancho Villa Dead and Alive (1943) down to recent excursions in color and shape across mammoth but drily painted picture planes, Motherwell has been faithful to a delectation of the senses even as he persisted—and persists—in his effort to assimilate the powerful forces that have emerged in American art in his time. There is a constant flirtation with power and the irrational—Surrealist stains, flashes of painterly vehemence and ever and ever greater scale—but generally, and, lately, increasingly, there is a retreat to classic contours, or a sense of tidying up after an act of premeditated Violence. In part this is attributable to a kind of Puritan aversion to excess, but it is also due to a studied pursuit of style. Even at his wildest, as in a number of paintings on paper from 1962, which suggest details of a de Kooning combined with a splash that is conceived in the spirit of Pollock but which expires in the nostalgia of Tobey, there is something calculated in the performance. Spontaneity, it would seem, is the application of, rather than a release from, practice. Thus, where the charm of his early, and much smaller works, is their genuine sloppiness hedged by a certain innate crispness, the brittleness and attenuation of his maturity is that of inspired indifference recollected in anxiety.

The increasing size of Motherwell’s canvases has only compounded rather than resolved his dilemma. In both individual examples, or in the continuing series, “Elegy to The Spanish Republic,” expanded scale dramatizes the schism in his art between taste and heroics, between form and symbol. It is never exactly clear in his recent and largest paintings whether his interest is in shape or “field.” The large areas of unbroken color refer to an ultimate discreteness of surface space, but the definite shapes which usually house an “automatist” splash reflect an older discipline of ideas, a more conventional order of content. It is this quality of what Clement Greenberg has called “homeless representation” (referring to the latent figuration of painterly abstraction) that accounts for the ultimate disembodiment of color, space and structure from what is manifestly a symbolic intention elsewhere in pictures which are rendered all the more ambiguous thereby. Whereas in the intimately scaled Pancho Villa Dead and Alive the symbols are the structure of a planimetric field activated by sharp daubs of color.

Motherwell’s collages are, therefore, more satisfying because their size is usually in keeping with their means, because the means force a characteristic closed structure upon the surface, and because the simultaneity of structure and symbol relates to the Cubist discipline which is the conceptual mate of his feeling for a modern, cultivated style. (It is because of this latent Cubism that the edges of his painted shapes usually have a function different from that of the color assigned to them. The former particularizes, the latter generalizes.) The collages of recent years have a tendency to be swamped by background waves of paint, as Motherwell has sought to “open” the Cubist door to over all space; but there is still a restraining measure of éclat in the way a label or a scrap of paper is slapped down into the viscous gumbo. In the end Motherwell always remembers his ideal of taste, reverting to a paradoxical sense of finish.

Motherwell’s intellectual importance to Abstract Expressionism as writer, editor and general liaison man cannot be underestimated. But as a painter he is still victimized by contradictions that were typical of Abstract Expressionism generally. But, again, as a painter, his contradictions inform his work with a certain boyish pride even as they are responsible for much of its pretension. For Motherwell has suffered his confusion in the pursuit of an ideal, whereas de Kooning experiences his in the evasion of one and Newman escapes into the “absolute” altogether. Motherwell respects culture, taste and intelligence for their own sakes. Basically his instincts are aristocratic. However, the ambitions of his era have insisted on a degree of participation in the “new” at the expense of his essentially conciliatory talent. The irony of a generation that helped create the present and the future is all the more drastic when we recognize those ambitions as they are caricatured at any typical museum vernissage today where fashion, ultimately, is as much on parade as culture.

Sidney Tillim