New York

Robert Motherwell, Open No. 16: In Ultramarine with Charcoal Line, 1968, acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 8' 3 1/2“ × 15' 6 1/2”. © Estate of Robert Motherwell/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Robert Motherwell, Open No. 16: In Ultramarine with Charcoal Line, 1968, acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 8' 3 1/2“ × 15' 6 1/2”. © Estate of Robert Motherwell/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Robert Motherwell

Andrea Rosen Gallery

Robert Motherwell, Open No. 16: In Ultramarine with Charcoal Line, 1968, acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 8' 3 1/2“ × 15' 6 1/2”. © Estate of Robert Motherwell/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

“Although he is underrated today, in my opinion he was one of the very best of the Abstract Expressionist painters.” Clement Greenberg’s widely cited assessment of Robert Motherwell’s work from 1991 is generally perceived as high praise, though its careful formulation corresponds to my own sense of restraint about the artist’s work, even when faced with this selection of “Opens,” 1967–74, arguably the painter’s most daring thematic group.

This ambivalence may owe in part to reasons more biographical than visual. Unlike the majority of his Abstract Expressionist confrères, so marked by first-generation angst, autodidacticism, decades of poverty, and a tragic consciousness (arising from the Great Depression and the horrors of World War II), Motherwell was a child of California wealth and privilege. He was passed over for military service during World War II (because of his debilitating adolescent asthma), and his father was president of Wells Fargo bank.

Motherwell’s grasp of the Symbolist tradition inherent in Dadaism—an aspect of the movement embodied in the work of Stéphane Mallarmé, above all—was central to his practice. Indeed, the artist’s cerulean grounds, of which there are many in the “Opens,” connote not only the California sky but also Mallarmé’s ecstatic quadruple cry of azur in his famed 1864 poem “L’Azur,” a work the painter knew deep in his marrow. After all, during the 1940s, Motherwell was engaged by the demands of The Dada Painters and Poets (1951), a pioneering anthology that helped to secure broad American appreciation for the movement.

Typical of the “Opens” is a tripartite structure of a simply bent line, its two ninety-degree shifts of course describing the base and sides of an open rectangle; in many instances, this figure reads as a wicket, or as a kind of hinge or flap. When the form is placed at the margin of the painting, the rectangle is “closed,” and the shape is suggestive of a door or window. Curiously, when the line is not fully complete, is instead just hanging in space—often in an ambiguous void of colored or white atmosphere—the paint in the figure’s interior invokes a thicker space or denser light than the outlying field of the same color. Of the sixteen “Opens” on view here (in all, Motherwell printed more than three hundred), three were included in the initial investigation of this theme at the Marlborough Gallery in 1969: the vertical blue Open No. 18, the horizontal blue Open No. 16, and the white horizontal Open No. 22 (all 1968).

Often enough, Motherwell drags a charcoal line through the color field, so that the field becomes an enveloping surface; at times, this gesture has produces a kind of crumbly, just-exhaled powderiness around the line itself. Such atmospherics reinforce the by-now canonic reading of the “Opens” as born of Matisse’s struggle with Cubism, a conflict emblematized in the blurred linear scaffoldings of such masterworks as View of Notre Dame, Paris or French Window at Collioure (both 1914).

To be sure, when the “Opens” were first shown, many noted their affiliations with the aerated atmospheres of Mark Rothko’s painting and the stained liquefactions of Helen Frankenthaler (to whom Motherwell was then married), not to speak of an emergent Minimalism. In this latter regard, the broad, parietal subdivisions of brute surface of Barnett Newman’s work should also be taken into account. Such parallels confirm Motherwell’s admirable place in critical developments out from Abstract Expression, even as they marked him as a reserved painter resistant to the shucking-off of his innate bon ton. Despite the strength of his early works—Western Air, 1946–47, say, or Personage, with Yellow Ochre and White,1947—Motherwell remained ever the aesthete. If in the large “Opens” the artist came close to breaking away from belle peinture and good taste, the hints of radicalism remain resolutely beautiful. The small “Opens,” meanwhile, seem more rapidly conceived and, though filled with impulsive pentimenti, they still fall within the easel tradition. In short, Motherwell was ever reluctant to risk the ugly; indeed, he was actually unable to do so. And so, Greenberg’s carefully posed evaluation still stands.

Robert Pincus-Witten