New York

Robert Motherwell

Lawrence Rubin Gallery

Robert Motherwell showed nine paintings, all but one from this year, at the Lawrence Rubin Gallery. This artist has an assertive persistence about him, as though in moments of declined appreciation he were on the verge of saying, “You won’t have Bob Motherwell to kick around anymore.” To some extent most artists share the same dilemma, when theirown growth outlives the immediate interests of history. Motherwell did make substantial contributions to the New York School in its heroic period, and on a high level. The rhetorical aspects of his Elegies may not seem to the point now, but they have proved far less dated than such feelings embodied in similar forms in works by other artists, e.g., Seymour Lipton. Moreover, Motherwell’s best public works may not, even as yet, have received the full honor due them. How often their inescapable meaningfulness—never a matter of esthetically superfluous entitling—is glossed over (a fate also suffered by Newman). But to generate a socially relevant art out of a Matissean sensibility was no small achievement in itself.

That sensibility, which involves an almost religious gratitude for color, has tended to preoccupy Motherwell in recent times, and as the epic tendency waned the lyric waxed, although never to quite the same absolute degree. What he lost in public force and conviction he generally did not altogether regain in private delectation. There are exceptions—some in this exhibition—but the point is that aimless trivialities and subtle products of the intellect are served up on the same tray, as though it couldn’t possibly matter to the spectator.

There was a very large horizontal canvas called Open—Scarlet with Blue Lines (1971), an impressive work with salient relations to Matisse’s Red Studio (1911), in whose 60th anniversary year it was painted. Yet there were also three paintings from a series called August Sea (Nos. 4–6), which consist of spare patterns of a few dark, slashlike lines against a continuous ground that suggest Matisse’s beloved cerulean blue as seen in bad reproduction. In August Sea No. 4 even the placement of the two lines, and the angle at which they approach one another, are evocative of Matisse, as in The Piano Lesson (1916–17). But an evocation which in Open—Scarlet is in the nature of homage, full of dignity and care, is in the August Sea paintings so casual, thoughtless, and superficial as to involve disrespect.

During recent years Motherwell has developed a mode of approach in which some simple, vaguely geometric form, seems painted up to, on an otherwise undisrupted ground where the paint plays in one only mildly varying color. Some of the new paintings do this with a squared U-shape, open at the top. But this form, which seems designed to activate the surface, can be so small that it assumes something of the quasi-symbolic character of motifs in Miró—definite but elusive, silent while having the look of a sign. This works well in the large painting Shem the Penman. The “U” is centered above two sections of a horizontal line, energizing the work like a magnet, but without the compositional patness that would result if these elements were heavy constructional devices.

In other works, the “U” appears independently and larger in size, either still floating free, as in Summer Night, or attached to the upper edge of the canvas like some window in a picture by Matisse (The August Sun and Shadow). In Summer Night and in some other works it seems as if Motherwell’s concern is to use this form—which threatens to be a blunt Gestalt—as a simple excuse to paint, as an occasion to paint something, as in works by Jasper Johns in which the execution of a “background” is the real substance of the effort. Thus, in Summer Night, the U-shape, despite its largeness and emblematic assertiveness, is actually an incomplete and rather suggestive form: it is painted in light green, with gray underpainting showing through in place s. The squared corners of the “U,” where it would seem natural to contrast clearly with (and to separate from) the royal blue surrounding field, are not at all rigid and complete. In The August Sun and Shadow, however, the thinly painted field has little interest in itself; it even seems tired, just as the constructivistic adjustment of the lengths of black band in the U-shape to the widths of the ground left and right is boring.

One of the most appealing paintings also refers back to the artist’s elegiac phase, Before the Day, where a wide rectangle is joined to the top—perhaps an adaptation of the “U”—with painterly activity on both sides of this linear membrane. Inside is a sequential row of painterly lines reminiscent of the sequential motifs in the Elegies, but fused together by a crossing stroke, like someone tabulating by fives. Outside is an understated, subtle, lovely play of cloudy patches of gray, white, and sooty black. Here the overconfidence of the lyrical Motherwell is controlled by the Motherwell of serious reflection and experience.

Joseph Masheck