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Robert Motherwell and poets Octavio Paz and Rafael Alberti at Fundacion Juan March
Robert Motherwell and Rafael Alberti.

MADRID.- In keeping with its desire to offer, in addition to its large exhibitions, select, smaller scale shows, the Fundación Juan March, presents this summer (from July 20 to September 1) an exhibition on the relationship between artist Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) –a great admirer of Spanish and Latin American literature– and Spanish poet Rafael Alberti (1902-1999) and Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz (1914-1998).

Robert Motherwell (1915–1991) was a decisive figure in American Abstract Expressionism and the so-called New York School. A writer and editor in addition to being a painter, Motherwell always felt a keen attraction to European culture, in particular that of Spain. Throughout his career he felt closely connected to the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, a subject that he paid homage to in his famous series of works titled Elegy to the Spanish Republic, and, as is evident in this exhibition, he also created prints to illustrate poems by Rafael Alberti like El Negro (Black) and A la pintura (To Painting). The Mexican Octavio Paz (1914–1998), meanwhile, was a prolific essayist and poet, as well as a professor, translator, and diplomat. He collaborated actively and insistently on promoting culture through numerous journals he founded and contributed to, including Taller, Plural, and Vuelta. The Nobel Prize for Literature he received in 1990 represented universal acknowledgement of his accomplishments. Rafael Alberti (1902–1999), a Spanish poet, writer, and playwright and a member of the Generation of 1927, is considered to be one of the greatest writers of the so-called Silver Age of Spanish literature.

This small exhibition, comprising holdings from the Fundación Juan March’s collection, historical archive, and library, as well as loans from private collections, aims to show aspects of the relationships Motherwell –an admirer of the literature of Spain and literature in Spanish– established with Rafael Alberti and Octavio Paz.

This small show is the latest in a series of encounters that began in 1980 with the exhibition Robert Motherwell, the artist’s first in Spain, at the Fundación’s headquarters in Madrid, which marked the beginning of a fruitful relationship between Motherwell and the Fundación Juan March. It also includes other exhibitions on the artist offered by the Fundación at the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español, Cuenca, as well as other large, collective exhibitions in which figured the painter’s works.

The relationship between the artist’s work and the two poets’ writings in this exhibition does not simply serve to reflect the circumstances of their lives and the ways in which they intersected in the 1970s and 1980s. Their relationships are presented here also as a highly characteristic example of literature and painting as universes of images that point to other images and texts that point to other texts, a situation that is closely tied to the history of contemporary art and of poetry in Spanish in the twentieth century. In this sense, while Motherwell “writes” a kind of text in an abstract script, Octavio Paz and Rafael Alberti approach the painter’s profession in their own way, striving to paint the words of the poem and of the book, which become artistic forms, objects that signify through visual means. The works of the painter and the poets thus also embody, in this way, the age-old relationship between poetry and painting.

The exhibition is divided into three narrative sections.

The first of these, titled “Robert Motherwell: Three Poems by Octavio Paz”, presents twenty-seven lithographs by the American artist that partially illustrate three poems by the Mexican writer, printed between 1981 and 1982. Paz published the three poems –“Nocturno de San Ildefonso” (San Ildefonso Nocturne), “Vuelta” (Return), and “Piel/Sonido del mundo” (Skin/Sound of the World)– in 1976, though he had written the third of these in 1971 after seeing Motherwell’s work. The texts, in Spanish and English, were printed in two colors on Arches paper. The twenty-seven lithographs –four in color– were published by Trestle Editions, New York.

The second section, “Negro Motherwell: Rafael Alberti,” presents the artist’s book El Negro, with lithographs by the artist and the poem “Negro Motherwell” by Alberti, which the poet had written and recited on the occasion of the inaugural ceremony for the first monographic exhibition devoted to Motherwell in Spain, organized by the Fundación Juan March in 1980. The section includes documents and photographs from that event as well as an audiovisual installation with Alberti’s reading of the poem and images from the book, El Negro, with the poem by Alberti illustrated by Motherwell.

Finally, the third section brings together books by Paz from the Biblioteca Julio Cortázar, the library that the Argentinian writer had in his Paris residence and that his widow, Aurora Bernárdez, donated to the Fundación Juan March in 1993. The collection comprises 3,894 titles, including books, magazines, and press clippings. The close friendship between Paz and Cortázar is evident in the dedications the Mexican writer wrote to his Argentinian colleague. Some of the books by Paz in Cortázar’s collection have been selected for this show either because of their thematic relevance (some of which are directly related to the subject of contemporary art) or because they contain visual poems or ingenious experiments midway between text and image.

Motherwell obtained a degree in philosophy, initiating his studies at Stanford University and completing them at Harvard. Throughout his youth he continued to develop his artistic talent, for which he was given a study grant by the Otis Art Institute, Los Angeles. As a result of a trip to Europe in 1938, he began to dedicate himself seriously to painting. In 1941, after a trip to Mexico with the Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta, he decided to dedicate himself to painting full time and moved to Greenwich Village in New York. During the 1940s, he was greatly influenced by the European Surrealists. His art reveals his passion for history, literature, and the human condition and from the beginning he sought to evoke a moral and political experience through his art. Indicative of this is Motherwell’s inspiration in the writings of James Joyce for the titles of his paintings, drawings, and prints throughout his artistic career. In addition, a poem by Federico García Lorca inspired him to produce more than 200 works for his series, Elegy to the Spanish Republic, which emerged as a result of his concerns about the Spanish Civil War.

In the early 1940s, Motherwell entered into contact with a group of New York artists who would come to be known as the Abstract Expressionists. With them, he began his career of collective and individual exhibitions dedicated to a decidedly gestural painting. In the late 1960s, he began another series that was markedly different from his gestural painting: his Open series, characterized by fields of color delineated with charcoal and suggesting doors or windows. Until the end of his career, Motherwell would dedicate himself to these two modes of painting: one more expressive, the other more austere, in addition to the creation of collages and print collaborations.

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