A Painter’s Cut-and-Paste Prequel
Abstract Expressionism is overrated. And it wasn’t initially a movement or style at all. It was a bunch of unalike artists, some great, some not, who shared a city, a war, some ideas and a bar, circa 1940. Pretty much everything else, including a fecund two-decade fad for soulful painting that grew from that moment, was largely a product of marketing and myth spinning.
That, at least, is the way future historians may well see AbEx’s “heroic” origins. And they’ll see that Robert Motherwell (1915-91) — a born explainer, neatener and networker — had a ground-level role in creating the brand, narrowing it to a specific kind of art that purportedly channeled emotion through gesture. But Motherwell also coined a more realistically neutral and accommodating label for the vanguard art of the time: the New York School. That name covered a lot of stylistic ground.
So did he when he began his career. We see him hard at work at it in “Robert Motherwell: Early Collages” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. And it’s a bracing, mettlesome, variegated sight, surprisingly so, given this artist’s reputation for formulaic elegance and AbEx orthodoxy.
In reality, Motherwell always stood slightly apart from other characters, even in standard tellings of the New York School tale. To Pollock’s loutish cowboy and de Kooning’s Olympian swashbuckler, he plays the genteel, brainy West Coast kid, a want-to-be painter, writer and philosophy scholar who arrived in Manhattan in 1940 to study art history with Meyer Schapiro at Columbia.
Cultural traffic was heavy in the city just then, as émigré artists, fleeing the war in Europe, poured in, among them Fernand Léger, Piet Mondrian, and a raft of Parisian Surrealists. Because Motherwell spoke fluent French — he had spent time in Paris — and was literary minded, Schapiro enlisted him to meet and greet the refugees, making him one of the few people in the New York art world with ready and continuing access to them.
Within the Surrealist circle, he encountered the young Chilean-born painter Roberto Matta, and they became, for a while, fast friends. It was through Matta that he met a crucial mentor, the collector and impresaria Peggy Guggenheim, who was about to open a gallery-museum-salon called the Art of This Century. And it was Matta who, on a joint trip to Mexico in 1941, fully initiated Motherwell into Surrealist automatism, an improvisatory technique that radically loosened up his idea of what art could be and how he could make it.
By 1943, he loosened up enough to take a stab at collage making, and Guggenheim provided the occasion. She was planning a big collage survey that would bring together European past masters of the form like Arp, Braque and Picasso with American newcomers. She wanted Motherwell in the mix. She gave him a deadline and said: Get to work. He did. One of the collages that resulted is in the present show.
It’s titled “Joy of Living,” though there isn’t much joy evident in this moody, unkempt concoction of smudged ink, nervy doodles and perspectival geometry, punctuated by a scrap cut from a military map and a sprinkling of curious red stains on a patch of white paper, like blood seeping through a bandage.
The piece was a hit. It attracted critical notice and even found a buyer, not bad for a first time out. And this public success set the seal on Motherwell’s newfound infatuation with what would become his primary medium over the next several years and the locus of some of the most interesting work he would ever do.
His paintings and drawings over a long career ahead would often be repetitive and predictable. Not these early pieces, though. A few settle for easy Gallic élan, and, Lord knows, there are Picassoisms flitting everywhere here. But other collages look bulky and dark, even slightly monstrous. They’re heavily labored but raw, as if he’d slaved over them until he just couldn’t bear to another minute and stopped. This impression of effort is probably partly a result of wrestling with formal demands that were new to him, involving the gestureless, surprisingly complicated physics of cutting, tearing, layering and gluing. Plus he was dealing with unfamiliar materials, most of them ready-made and therefore potentially intractable: papers of different weight, patterned and not; high- and low-grade inks, kindergarten gouaches, adhesives that discolored or bled.
The tone of much of this early work though, alternately brooding and volatile, comes from its expressive content. Motherwell once said that he had been obsessed with the idea of death since he was a child. And that obsession is there in his art from the start.
The much-exhibited 1943 collage-painting “Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive” is based on a very specific image of death, a 1923 photograph of the corpse of Villa, the assassinated Mexican revolutionary. Motherwell shows the body, rendered all but abstract, twice, once daubed with blood-colored paint, and again set against a sheet of busily patterned wrapping paper that here suggests a bullet-strafed wall.
Motherwell’s single best-known work, the huge series of more than 100 paintings titled “Elegy to the Spanish Republic,” is a memorial to an extended episode of modern political violence, the brutal suppression of Loyalists in the 1930s in the Spanish Civil War. Stretched over Motherwell’s entire career, the series began in 1948, and a collage from that year, simply titled “Elegy,“ encapsulates its essential resurrectional components: two testicular ovals and a phallic upright.
Many more pieces, however, are clear responses to an even more immediate and colossal crisis, World War II. A section of the military training map seen in “Joy of Living” turns in up a latter collage, “View from A High Tower,” dated 1944-45. Here, the map sits like a targeted patch of green in a convulsed landscape of folded, wrinkled and ripped paper. Just off the picture’s center floats a form that is hard to interpret. It could be a dead body, headless and shrouded, but the letters inscribed on it, “VIV” and “LA,” read like a broken cry to life, a resistance anthem: Vive la France.
By this point, Motherwell had more than just mastered color. He had made it a central element in his collage work, and he would never use it again or anywhere else with such experimental boldness. It’s what turns the 1946 “Blue With China Ink (Homage to John Cage)” into an infinity of kite-filled sky, and, a year later, makes “The Poet,” painted ember orange, a little furnace radiating heat. Color is also part of what makes the 1949 “Collage in Yellow and White, With Torn Elements” autumnal in every sense, with its goldenrod yellow and wild-aster blues, and paper scraps clinging loose to its surface like golden leaves to an October tree.
In some ways, this is the most radical piece in an extraordinary show, organized by Susan Davidson, a senior curator at the Guggenheim. It comes out of both Surrealism and Expressionism but leaves both behind, and maybe abstraction, too: What , after all, could be more concrete, more illusion free than the visibly fragile material this picture is composed of?
And in this work, more obviously than any other, Motherwell relinquished his role as sole creator, which is Abstract Expressionism’s defining feature. Gravity, chemistry and light deserve equal billing as collaborators in a piece of art that has almost certainly changed color, texture and form since it was new.
Motherwell, the memorialist, surely understood this. Maybe that’s why he did his best — his freest, most vital, least doctrinaire — work in collage, a medium that in the end belongs to one all-encompassing movement, time.