San Francisco

Robert Motherwell

A selection of forty-nine paintings. drawings, and collages, representing the fifteen year period from 1950 through 1965, is the bulk of the Robert Motherwell exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

In an interview between Motherwell and Max Kozloff, published in the September 1965 issue of Artforum, some insight into the artist’s position can be gleaned. When asked by Kozloff: “Do you consider that American painting ultimately rejected the tenets of French culture, as manifested in painting, during the forties?” Motherwell answered: “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 became much weaker—by becoming nationalistic. What is specifically ‘American’ is the violence . . .”

Motherwell’s statement, when said in 1965, seemed axiomatic. The point is that Motherwell, in the mid forties, was acutely aware of himself; he and his peers were a group of American artists deeply in Europe’s debt, and yet struggling (it must have seemed fantastically arrogant at the time) to create paintings that would stand alongside Matisse, Picasso, Soutine, et al.

Motherwell seems to have been the bridge between his American peers and the highly sophisticated emigree European art colony centered in New York. His oeuvre reflects his love for the sensual French modernism of the Ecole De Paris. It also reflects the harsh, city-inspired modernism that has now been called American-style painting. Summer Time in Italy #7, blends both ends of Motherwell’s dualistic position. The artist has worked the painting with what appears to be golden ochre and raw sienna over orange and blue underpainting. He has allowed, in the upper half of the picture, the orange to inform the thinly-brushed ochre, creating a hushed, relaxed glow just beneath the outer layer of paint. In the lower half of the painting a transition occurs in paint surface; the pigment becomes thicker although the value change between the two areas is very slight. A loosely brushed triangle with its left angle open rests in the upper middle section of the painting joining the diverse yet close valued areas of the entire picture plane.

If one could point at one painting that summarizes Motherwell at his finest, Summer Time in Italy #7 is just such a work. His subtlety, the fluent, virtuoso brush work, and his unfailing grasp of composition are summarized in this painting.

If there is a point where Motherwell fails to realize his highest ambitions it is in an area where his graphic power overwhelms his painterly sense. If for example, in the work Two Figures with Cerulean Blue Strips, Motherwell had been forced, through anxiety, to re-think the placement of the various elements within the roughly 7-by-10-foot canvas, the final result would have been more satisfying. Instead, he resolved the entire painting very quickly, precisely because he has such a sure eye for arrangement. If one insists on this point it is like asking an intelligent man to lose some of his sense and muddle around instead of finding answers quickly. It is simply not possible in most cases, Motherwell’s in particular.

––James Monte