New York

Robert Motherwell

Whitney Museum of American Art

The Whitney Museum exhibited 30 of Robert Motherwell’s recent collages, a series of beige figurations on white, and another group in which the artist employs Gauloises cigarette wrappers, envelopes, and bright patches of painted color, more geometrically organized than the freer torn and textured browns and whites of the former group. The Mu­seum’s director, John I. H. Baur (in a wall label posted near the collages) was truly apologetic in his explana­tion of the fact that the particular choice of Gauloises packets does not indicate Motherwell’s “susceptibility to French influence” (rather, it is due to his preference for their ultramarine blue color, and to a friend’s ready supply of that brand). Could it be that the Whitney is becoming defen­sive in advance of the possible crit­icism which the artists it exhibits might undergo?

It is almost credo by now that Motherwell can be counted on to produce elegant and refined works, but in this case they are intimate and lyrical to a point of preciosity, with a look that is studiedly tasteful, if not utterly boring. Continental or not in their leanings, for all the lush color or intelligent balance of freedom and restraint, I find that the collages are only glibly attractive. They are never ill-considered, but the beige config­urations looked especially flabby and lacked the authoritativeness of some of his earlier abstractions. In Ochre with Cobalt is dabbed very cutely with a pair of tiny red dots over its torn brown paper and painted cobalt blue swatches, while the literary pun­ning of Art Bulletin Collage with Cross does not redeem the hand­some but shallow graphics. Pasted over a green ground, a page from that journal which discusses the ca­thedral of Chartres is inscribed with a rough painted cross hung with shreds of vermilion paper. It looks lovely, but points to the kind of re­treat Motherwell has taken into the use of anecdotal devices, or super­ficial good looks, instead of holding on to the bold rigor which was not­able in his work of the past decade.

Emily Wasserman