New York

Robert Motherwell

Knoedler Contemporary Art

Although A la Pintura does not signal any new directions in painting or open any doors, it nevertheless is one of Robert Motherwell’s most important paintings. It is basically a version of his continuing “Open” series, which consists of a one-color field and some kind of hanging rectangle drawn upon it, usually from the top. Compared with the rest of the show, in its refined black/white/brown and muted powder blues and rusts, A la Pintura appears to be a monumental release of energy—it is a field of the most sensuous blood red. This red is very powerful, and is something I would describe as closer to a Barnett Newman color than a Motherwell color. It is the first time in my experience he has used such an expanse of it. There is a slit, a slash, a vagina within the typical “Open” rectangle, as if the painting had burst open and poured blood.

The red field is turbulent and worked up in a most expressionist fashion. Everything seemed to function this time: size, which seemed abnormally squarish; scale; the differentiation of painting and drawing; and the rich, emotional color. The work not only refers to other Motherwells and Newman but to Still and Rothko—it is as if, with most of his contemporaries gone, Motherwell is the last artist we can depend on to recreate the excitement and vigor of Action Painting and make it a valid, living tradition. With this one painting, he does just that.

The rest of his show was much tamer, and suffered in contrast. There were new Elegy paintings and the familiar (this time much over-size) collages with cigarette and postal packagings. Most of the new work is in acrylic and looks it: everyone knows how drips and blotches and stains look rather facile when executed in acrylic. In the collages with greens and oranges juxtaposed, there is an uninteresting plastic quality to the heavily brushed planes of color, which is definitely at odds with the usual improvisational, off-hand refinement.

Motherwell’s tasteful, classic automatic style of painting has always hovered somewhere between European Surrealism and the action painting of the best Abstract Expressionists. His Spanish motifs, with their layered, sensuous, Mediterranean romanticism and overt sexual imagery of bull testicles, ovaries, violence and passion, are quite Freudian, attaching themselves to the sexuality of Surrealism. But the physical size and comprehensive gesture are very American. Motherwell continues an emotional, nostalgic invocation of political struggle (there are now probably over 150 of those Elegy paintings), but the references are Spanish and sometimes Irish, never referring to our contemporary national problems. The more he has eliminated subject matter which was either political or personal (mail, cigarettes, newspapers, all of which recall the intimate world of Cubism), the more “American” his work looks.

The “Open” series is at once his most abstract and most American work—it reaffirms certain transcendental aspirations of his American peers. In one instance, however, A la Pintura, the abstract “Open” format has been transformed into a more allusive and expressive, even more Surrealist image. Motherwell has succeeded in mixing his dual allegiances to form a most brilliant synthesis.

––Jeff Perrone