PRINT May 1969

Robert Motherwell’s New Paintings

IN 1959, AT THE TIME of a large retrospective of Miró’s paintings, Robert Motherwell singled out a picture’ from 1925, characterizing it as “simply a blue-brushed color plane, punctured in the upper left corner by a hole the roundness of a pencil and in the lower right corner his tiny signature and the year.” And then he added “The picture stands.” (Art News, LVIII , May 1959.) The picture Motherwell described is part of a series of paintings Miró executed in the mid-twenties which, explored the capacity of line to function as a sign of space, rather than remaining the boundary of an object which occupies space. Miró’s sign in these pictures is a hairline cross: a single horizontal around which the uneven blue wash coalesces only slightly; and a vertical which bisects it. In these pictures one feels Miró’s formal intelligence at work, straining to gather into a pair of intersected lines answers to questions about the meaning of perspective, of illusionism, and most particularly of the sign itself. By forcing a single cursive stroke to resonate between the extreme distance experienced at the horizon and the objective proximity of the canvas surface, at least part of Miró’s aim is to show how a sign does not simply convey its significance but is filled with it.

Like Miró’s art, Motherwell’s own has been a continuous investigation into the nature of signs—both examining and displaying their openness, their directness of address, and the way they can embody the conventions which are at the heart of painting.

Motherwell is presently engaged in a series called Open, which like Mira’s earlier pictures deploys a drawn sign—a rectilinear U—on a luminous monochrome field. But unlike Miró’s crossed axes, Motherwell’s sign of openness, or of opening out, is critical rather than acceptive of the conventions of easel painting. Because Miró’s illusionistic sign permitted, or one might say was about, the viewer’s capacity to focus, it could allow to go unchallenged the spectator’s assumptions that the picture was situated in space opposite, and parallel to, his own body. Now, fifty years later, if Motherwell’s truncated, symbolic aperture is to function in terms of painting, he seems compelled to challenge Miró’s assumption of the picture’s frontality. By reorienting the painting, the sign intends within Motherwell’s art to reorient painting.

Open No. 37 situates the black lines of the U within a delicately nuanced orange field, approximately 7 1/2 by 10 1/2 feet. Although each side of the figure is parallel to the edges of the painting, it is not symmetrical; for its left arm is only about two-thirds as long as its right. The effect of this asymmetry is one of turning, of foreshortening. However, it is not the figure which appears turned at an angle to the viewer. Rather it is the field itself which seems warped or expanded—tilted at an apparently indefinite angle to the beholder and flooded or filled with luminous color.

This torsion-without-motion has roots deep within Motherwell’s art, although in my view it is only in the Open series that Motherwell has employed it exclusively in the service of color.

Of all the American painters of the 1940s, Motherwell was probably the only one to make major art out of the precedent of Synthetic Cubism. Others, like de Kooning, had gone through an apprenticeship to late Cubist flat-color and hard-edged drawing. But de Kooning’s breakthrough as opposed to Motherwell’s came with the kind of shaded drawing and dragged paint areas which could pocket his surfaces with limited shards of space, that is, with areas of the plane which were depicted as turning away into depth. The shapes in Motherwell’s pictures of the late ’40s never seemed turned. Like the painted or pasted areas of color in. Picasso’s work of 1912–14, his shapes were always manifestly frontal. They were set parallel to and continuous with the flat surface of the picture. A painting like The Homely Protestant even courts this frontality through an almost hieratic feeling of symmetry. It demands that there be no visible evidence of three-dimensional space. The brilliance of these early works by Motherwell is in their refusal to depict depth and in their insistence that depth itself could be presented as an idea.

This has happened in the great Synthetic Cubist Picassos. In the 1913 Violin (in the Hermann Rupf Collection) the front face of the instrument is established by two blue rectangles each ornamented by the flats of a sound hole. Because one of these devices is smaller than the other and because the blue strip which supports it is narrower, the viewer has the sensation of torsion, although what he is looking at does not betray the illusion of depth. Therefore what the viewer is made to see is the convention of turning—foreshortening represented per se. So that while the object in the picture, the violin, maintains an unblinking flatness and two-dimensionality, what seems to be convulsed by a turning movement is that part of the picture surface that lies between the two blue rectangles. But because that area is so obviously continuous with the rest of the flat and frontal surface, the torsion lie perceives cannot involve any kind of turning that is familiar to the viewer’s body or to any real objects of his experience. The operation of those paired S-shaped devices, as signals of a depth that is nowhere depicted in the work, is something like inscribing the word “depth” across the canvas at that point; although a word would not have had the power to affect one’s perception. The kind of similarity that exists between the actual lettering of words or word-fragments onto the canvas, and what goes on in Picasso’s Violin or Motherwell’s paintings and collages from the late ’40s, is a structural one. Like the lettering in Cubist pictures of 1911, the effect of depositing a sign at a specific place on the picture surface is local. It makes no difference whether one is using the stenciled letters of “journal” to align a shaded plane with the physical picture surface or one is using a device to achieve a palpable sense of turning into depth where there is no actual, depicted one. The picture is affected only in those places where the device occurs—as a whole, the painting remains structurally what it was before.

In the greatest of the Elegies for the Spanish Republic this fact—that depth was signalled only locally—was a source of expressive power. Because each black or white vertical band was felt to be frontal and synonymous with the wall surface, the eye read the difference in size between the contiguous black ovoids of the pictures as a shift in level. Given the apparent continuity of the wall plane, this difference in level appeared simultaneously impossible and convulsive. But when Motherwell began to work with more atmospheric washes of color, areas of a given picture would sometimes polarize into undelimited pockets of illusion between unequivocal bands of literal surface. Within the banded, mural format there was no way to jackknife these two perceptions into a single, seamless vision of illusion or color-through-surface. This is no longer true of the paintings in the Open series.

Within the Open series many of the pictures operate with more complicated versions of the U device, often bleeding it off the upper edge of the picture. In Open No. 33, a raw sienna field is bisected by a drawn horizontal line, and a bipartite U extends all the way to the top of the color surface. But however and wherever Motherwell decides to deploy the device, it is imperative, in order for these pictures to work, that they avoid any sense of focus on any point within the field. The viewer must feel as though he were constantly sliding, perceptually, along the surface, and that no clue is available by which he might—as he can in traditional, illusionistic painting—gauge the relation between the depicted distance at a focal point within the picture and the physical edge of the canvas. This was still possible within the terms of Miró’s perspective cross, but it is no longer with Motherwell’s sign.

Motherwell sometimes refers to the U device as a “window” although he clearly does not mean this as a literal designation. The U is merely the simplest graphic symbol for an opening and on one level it functions to reinforce the natural tendency for a color field to suggest a yielding, penetrable sense of depth. But on another level, it is a repetition of the real picture frame, and thus a label to define the natural condition of the picture surface. For the picture, like the written word, is totally open: public, free of access, unobstructed, spread out before one. As a surface it is essentially available to vision at every point, because it is parallel to the viewer and flat.

It is often the problem of color-field painting that these two conditions become polarized into an either/or situation—where veils of color are either detached from the surface and undelimited by it, or the surface reads as an inert physical object. I have argued elsewhere (Artforum, May, 1968) that the illusion of obliqueness, of the whole color field as slanted at an angle to the viewer’s line of sight, has become an imperative for modernist painting. Open No. 37 states this imperative as directly and as naturally as any painting I know. No. 37 and others from the Open series are among the strongest and most difficult paintings Motherwell has ever made. To borrow Motherwell’s phrase for Miró “The picture stands.”

Rosalind Krauss