OCTOBER 30, 2014 - JANUARY 3, 2015


By Andrew Berardini

Write the same sentence everyday for a year. It gets better, it gets worse. The lines dissolve into squiggles, hieroglyphs, snakes that snap at your fingers. Each handwritten stroke of course tells your mood, your desires, your penchant for wild sweeps, spontaneous overflows of emotion recollected in tranquility. Each quiver is a state of mind. They are hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions. The lines restrict like prison bars and they free you in a long sweep of a swan in flight. They cut sharply, a suicidal stab or the sweaty snip that slices off the balls of a bull at five in the afternoon. The lines take on the color of a pack of cigarettes, the sea at dawn. Write it five hundred times each morning just to warm up your wrist. Is it a prayer? Maybe, but a prayer in the old parlance is an entreaty to god, of submission and devotion.

You have submitted only to the act, you are devoted only to the process.

The words never mattered. You write them automatically, with only the thought of thoughtlessness, of letting whatever abyssal creatures leap out for a moment above the hard placid whiteness of the page. Make something up without thinking. My chartreuse dog yells “Fire!” at all the virgin maidens in the yard. Snootzy Carruthers eats his hat with mustard every third Thursday on the antelope. Your slit wrist slippers into my heart with every wet kiss. And then think about it. The unconscious act of simply letting the words leap out has more force than the implied order of the language: they reveal those things in us that like to hide. The silliness and lusts we suppress, the boredom of death, waiting. All those words, nonsense maybe, or with a subtle meaning beyond our quotidian illusions of meaning, the stuff made of dreams and spirit, the subconscious for Freudians and surrealism for Breton, free-association and psychic automatism.

After you’ve written your sentence five hundred, six hundred, a thousand times, the lines that come forth have a sudden immediate grace of action and become an image. The act and its meaning become indissoluble. Let go of the words. Now there is language but not composed of letters but only of visions, the lines signify nothing but themselves. Samuel Beckett in defense of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake in 1929 said that his fellow Irishman’s "writing is not about something; it is that something itself.” The disappeared words wisp and heft with abstraction, the unsullied being of their author happily sullied by your unique hand, engined by the ethereal mind that animates it. We can only make art with the hazy corruption of our own purity.

With terror, for I am inventing a language which must necessarily burst forth from a very new poetics, that could be defined in a couple of words: Paint, not the thing, but the effect it produces.
-Stéphane Mallarmé in a letter to Henri Cazalis, 30 October, 1864

This is where you’ll find the drawings of Robert Motherwell.

-Robert Motherwell, from his notes

We lost Motherwell, at least some of us did for a spell. We lost him in folds of interpretation layered on by historians and teachers, entombed in white boxes and printed on the crumpling leaves of fading books. Broken apart, a lifetime of gestures cleaved from the whole, sunk into museums and buried in myth.

Can we even read the language anymore? Is Abstract Expressionism another sanskrit, Latin hymns repeated at mass without understanding their meaning?

Through all these folds, artists still parted the shrouds and found him. Painters rarely let the glory of past heroes fade.

In the studio, ca. 1960.  Photo courtesy Dedalus Foundation.

What they find is the action of 500 hundred drawings he'd start out just as a warm up. The audacity of setting out on a series of a thousand drawings in Lyric Suite. The, count 'em, 150 or so massive paintings in the Elegy to the Spanish Republic series.

When you see it all alone, really see it, standing naked of its shrouds alongside its old rivals, lovers, siblings, you’ll find the quick joy of a dashing hand, the weird perfection that comes with repeating a gesture, a line, and letting it soften, unfurl, dance, snake, tighten, loosen up again, and end more purely as itself than when it began. Artists like to call their work a practice, Motherwell, 500 sheets at a time, earned it more than anybody. (Calling artmaking a “practice” was one of the many things that the wordsmith Motherwell coined along with the “New York School”, inspired as he was, as were many of his poetic and painterly peers, by the School of Paris).

 paul kasmin gallery robert motherwell  lyric suites
Lyric Suite, 1965, at Robert Motherwell: Works on Paper 1951-1991, Paul Kasmin Gallery, NY

Their accrued gravitas as art made sometimes decades ago and even more the blunt educational instrument that is Abstract Expressionism, one of the first thing any school kid learns about modern art, weighs down the limber wrist and the long but light contemplation that comes with a repeated gesture, the Zen thoughtlessness that Motherwell made his own.

This is not the heaviness of a thousand schoolish lessons. Paintings witnessed only on slides, the drone of a professorial voice repeating leaden pronouncements from Greenberg or the like. Dry observations about wet paint. Pollock and Guston and de Kooning and Kline, all drunk with the stuff, pugilists with canvas, bruised intellects trying to find body in spirit, have been flattened under the desiccated authority of institutional culture, bludgeoned by fame of one kind or another, and sometimes abandoned. "Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” asked Time magazine about Jackson Pollock, and he never quite lost that question mark. They’ve become so much of the landscape, they’ve almost disappeared into it. Except for those that still really look, and in that clear vision. They are still seen truly and freshly as they day the canvas was marked.

So let it all go, the libraries of books, the jokey pop references, the word “genius” trumpeting from toothy mouths, and the accepted truth of something you have not been allowed to discover for yourself, the ecstasy of god made dogma to humans who have never felt it. Imagine that moment before Western painters stripped pictures of images, then the hard rhythms and sacred geometry of modern Mondrian unraveling under the influence of the raw expression in surrealism’s automatism, the freedom from restraint still snickered at by more stiffly methodical intellectuals. But these paintings made with intuitive splatters and gravity are really something to see, even all these years later, even as their makers molder, the ancient storms of artistic souls still flood and boom. And there’s Motherwell.

Motherwell never quite received the same treatment as Pollock or even De Kooning. The youngster in the gang and often a spokesman for the movement, his expressions seem downright restrained compared to Pollock’s restless splatters. When Motherwell lets gravity and paint collide, they are not a fractal dance of human ecstasy but the ceaseless splash of a wave on a naked shore. His restlessness is not the verve of humans battered by war inventing a new civilization, electric with possibility, but the movement of tides, the free force of submitting to their cycles, repetitions. The color and energy of Motherwell is an abstraction within nature, observed without judgment, and translated into a language spoken through hands by pencils and brushes. In a punchy speech delivered to a bunch of conservative educators, he said, “....when I look at my painting as detachedly as I can, it appears to me as warm, sensual, silent, and felt.” They are wet, when he made them and when we see them.

Drunk with Turpentine, 1979,
oil on paper 30 x 20 inches,
76.2 x 50.8 cm

Oceanic cycles have surges and retreats, births and deaths. Perhaps this quiet, sensitive translator of elemental forces was as drunk with the generative possibilities of paint as he was its destroyer, the turpentine void that washes away the deepest stains. Like booze loosens the painter, turpentine loosens the paint. Both of course can and have destroyed their medium.

Drunk as drunk on turpentine
From your open kisses,
Your wet body wedged
Between my wet body and the strake
Of our boat that is made of flowers,
Feasted, we guide it - our fingers
Like tallows adorned with yellow metal -
Over the sky's hot rim,
The day's last breath in our sails.
Pablo Neruda, Poem IX, 1932

... oil paint mixed with turpentine to, roughly, the consistency of ink, I had a similar ‘outpouring’, though I made less than a hundred works which I call the Drunk with Turpentine series, a title that no matter how evocative, is also literal.
-Robert Motherwell

Five hundred drawings every morning that he could muster. Recapturing that immediacy is what made and keeps his work lively, a brave song hollered from the prow of Rimbaud’s drunken boat, “the Rivers let me go where I wanted.” Motherwell’s recorded gestures at their best still nimbly move as the day he darted his hand across a page.

Such graceful gestures get lost in empty reference pasted into blurbish histories. The struggling painter can no longer animate the work, his brushes are buried, but the works still wetly live.

So like some young priest finding an ancient spell forgotten in the temple archives, I repeat his wordless language, recite the incantations with these thousand sentences and summon with a poem a spirit.

Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting with the
gift of speech.
Simonides, quoted by Motherwell in “A Process of Painting,” 1963

An elegy of course is a poem. So is a lyric. The Elegy... series began as a small drawing Motherwell made in 1948 to accompany a poem by Harold Rosenberg and evolved. Then we have here Motherwell tangling with James Joyce in a series of works attempting to create images that stand alongside the great author’s prose in Ulysses. Like his School of Paris heroes, writing was never separate from art for Motherwell. Here making up words about the artists, I’m reading Federico García Lorca and Frank O’Hara, Octavio Paz and Mallarmé, Wallace Stevens and Rafael Alberti and Paul Valéry.

The simplicity of materials and the immediacy give poems and pictures a shared defiance against the tyranny of the blank page, the deafening void, especially for an artist like Motherwell so keenly attuned to the force of emptiness, the unslathered stretch of canvas, the untouched territories of paper. His early affections for dada and the surrealist’s automatic writing always informed his work, but the relationship did not distract with words from his picture-making, they enlarged it. A deep reader, in certain poets and writers, especially the French Symbolists and Modernists, he found pictures, taking their spiritual flourishes into his own psychic automatism, making pictures made of loose metaphors that are still fundamentally always paint.

Evening hours, girls in grey gauze. Night hours then: black with daggers and eyemasks. Poetical idea: pink, then golden, then grey, then black. Still, true to life also. Day: then the night.
-James Joyce, Ulysses

When Motherwell read James Joyce, he said “I found Ulysses at a time when I was searching for the key to a vaguely perceived modernist aesthetic that I knew I had to make my own. Joyce served my purposes then and now. If you have taken on the adventure of modernism as I have - and the history of it - there have to be a few prophets to help you when you get discouraged. You go back to them for reinforcement. “

Astonishing voyagers! What splendid stories
We read in your eyes as deep as the seas!
Show us the chest of your rich memories,
Those marvelous jewels, made of ether and stars.
We wish to voyage without steam and without sails!
To brighten the ennui of our prisons,
Make your memories, framed in their horizons,
Pass across our minds stretched like canvasses.
Tell us what you have seen.
-Charles Baudelaire, “The Voyage,” 1859, used as a painting’s title by Motherwell in 1949

Motherwell passes across our minds his stretched canvasses, tales told of unspeakable places whose power required they be spoken. Both he and his AbEx fellow travellers, each crafted for themselves singly and together a new language, sharing the need to remove illusion and reduce the noise between the feeling and its expression. Rothko and Pollock drowned in still and frothing oceans of color, Guston swirled and stayed afloat by finding buoyancy in story, Motherwell struggled his own struggles to be sure, but he lived long enough past his friends Mark and Jackson to survive into the great work of his later years He survived, by my lights, through practice, the devoted act of locating the perpetually unknown interiors of himself and circling them, over and again, over and again, tracing the borders of that dark country, inspiration flashing across its landscape, illuminating it for just long enough to count its colors, the power of their shapes, enough to paint their essential portraits, abstract as hell but with a clarity deeper than hyperrealism allows.

These repetitions were not copies of the first action, but a deepening, a way to go to the bottom and top of it, to fill it with time and energy, to make physical that which only existed in thought and emotion, and thus in form to make a space for it in others.

What grace of light, what pure toil goes to form
-Paul Valéry, “Le cimetière marin,” 1920

Those lines wristed again and again and again finally broke the page, cut the canvas and opened a window.

 KASMIN GALLERY robert motherwell
Open Study No. 5, 1968, acrylic and charcoal on paper,
22 x 30 1/4 inches, 55.9 x 76.8 cm

In the Random House unabridged dictionary, there are eighty-two entries under the word 'open' that could be set on separate lines, as in a poem. For me those entries are most beautiful, filled with all kinds of associations, all kinds of images.

Look there at the stream of canvas and paper of Open (1968-1972) a simple unbalanced shape, double angled and open, floating in a field of color. An empty cup filled with color, both a door and a window going inwards and outwards, a simple theme from a mysterious song that invites endless variation, just lines and color composed without thought after the deepest contemplation, light as the wind and heavy as oceans, a poem.

The series that shivers me most with shared inspiration is Open.

He gracefully frees us from the surface. The strange little open rectangle is like a code, a tip-off on how to read the painting. The material and frame are just imaginary boundaries, the painting and reality are as open as we imagine them to be. My first daydreams were of windows, that space in life that cuts through forced limitations and allows us freedom, a route to escape and a welcome for illicit outsiders. An open window lets the wind blow in the perfumes of flowers and trees, the song of birds and the tidal music of distant traffic, the hoot and holler of street life just beyond and always simply air, the essential and invisible element of life.

Little Spanish Prison, 1941-44,
oil on canvas,
27 1/4 x 17 1/8 inches, 69.2 x 43.5 cm
Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY.

Go back to the beginning for a moment and look at the bars of The Little Spanish Prison, 1941-44. It took twenty-five years, but Motherwell finally cut through those lemon yellow bars in that prison window. He set us and himself free. Beyond Open, he took that freedom and ran with it, producing in that space of deliverance and contemplation, of immediacy and practice for another twenty-five more years. A thousand windows, ten thousand windows, made one at a time with only a pencil and brush to cut through the stone and plaster, the prisons of meaning and history, and see what new space lies beyond the made-up boundary forced by a wall, by a canvas. The bracing air that comes through wakes us to our own spacious freedom if we want it.

And there, Motherwell opens a window.