New York

Robert Motherwell

Knoedler & Company

That Robert Motherwell is a master of the sure touch, of the precisely right configuration, has been confirmed once again by his new works. Motherwell continues to dare to use black more emphatically than any other painter, in fact as a kind of visual blackmail. Not mere islands but whole continents of shapes are abandoned to this freebooter, and the viewer is coerced into paying tribute. As the achromatic pigment we hate to love, black offers zero stimulus to the retina, achieving perceptibility only through contact with adjoining colors; in effect held for ransom, these colors appear tantalizingly richer. Ocher, for instance, a favored pigment in the new work as before, is a leeched hue until annexed by black, when it turns into an affirmation of every life-giving principle, a substance ground from equal parts sun and earth. (The synopsis of glaring light and deep shade performed by this color combination is an insistent reminder that Motherwell’s painting career really began in Mexico in 1941, when he was apprenticed to Roberto Matta.)

Motherwell is a figurative painter manqué. All those ovals, from the “Elegies to the Spanish Republic,” 1957–67, to new canvases such as Trio VI and Danse Macabre, both 1985, are as lovable as the Shmoos in Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner.” In Work in Progress (The Golden Bough) and Quintet, both 1986, they dimple with the plumpness of the Pillsbury Doughboy These new shapes, like the old, are contained. Motherwell has never been one to let it all hang out; that’s why his compositions are so classically ”perfect,” and why his body of work betrays a soupçon of conservatism. As Edward Lucie-Smith has pointed out, even the “Elegies” are nostalgic. They were painted by a Motherwell “looking back. . .on his own youth,” having been in his early 20s when the Spanish Civil War began.

The oval may be Motherwell’s great invention, his personal contribution to the Abstract Expressionist effort. Less overtly figurative than Willem de Kooning’s “Women,” his first “Elegies” allowed a cool/hot presence to enter the arena and become the sort of gestalt magnet that was missing in his colleagues’ works (as well as in his own works, both paintings and collages, concerned with the torn edge and the poignant scrap), which are still composed under the aegis of Cubism.

Jeanne Silverthorne