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'Robert Motherwell: At five in the afternoon' on view at the National Gallery of Australia
Robert Motherwell, Burning elegy 1991. Lithograph. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Purchased with the assistance of the Orde Poynton Fund 2002© Robert Motherwell/VAGA.

By: Jane Kinsman

CANBERRA.- Observing the emergence of Abstract Expressionism, Clement Greenberg, the prominent American critic and great supporter of this new style, remarked on the significant role played by Robert Motherwell in the movement's development in the United States. Motherwell's first solo exhibition in 1944 at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery in New York led Greenberg to comment that, even allowing for Motherwell's great debt to Picasso, 'He has already done enough to make it no exaggeration to say that the future of American painting depends on what he, Baziotes, Pollock, and only a comparatively few others do from now on'. Later Greenberg came to view Motherwell as 'one of the very best of the Abstract Expressionist painters'.

One thing that stood Motherwell apart from many of the Abstract Expressionists was that he became an accomplished printmaker. This was in contrast to many of the older generation of Abstract Expressionist artists, including Jackson Pollock, who considered the production of 'painterly prints' to be more or less impossible. Achieving the spontaneous gesture and freshness of expression, which were hallmarks of the style, was at odds with the production of prints, which was often codified and stratified and tied to a schedule of process. Yet somehow Motherwell was able to harness etching and later lithography and translate them into a means of his own creativity.

For Motherwell making prints became a way of liberating his activity in the studio, achieving gestural flourishes and layering disparate elements to form refined compositions. While acknowledging the central importance painting played for him as an artist, Motherwell expressed his love of making prints in 1977 correspondence:

Print-making is my hobby, my mistress … When the edition is finally o.k., and goes to press and you see the first fresh print, it is with ecstasy. All struggle has vanished. There is a virgin birth, fresh and perfect, like Venus arising from the sea. Good prints, properly taken care of, never lose this virgin beauty, no more than medieval stained glass.

In his explorations in print, Motherwell was able to constantly revisit, recycle and re-edit his compositions with certain independence. This was in contrast with the immense battle the artist faced in painting, where he struggled with 'new points of attack', which left their traces evident as pentimenti like 'corpses on a battle-field'.

Motherwell's abstractions were not simply aesthetically pleasing forms and colours, but related to the world in some way or other, though he chose never to illustrate, or depict, preferring rather to evoke or suggest. He adopted various methods in his art practice. Inspired by the Surrealists and their notion of automatism, he would spontaneously draw his imagery on a sheet or a canvas. Motherwell also adopted the technique of collage, the most radical form of drawing developed in the twentieth century, which generated the Modernist styles of Cubism, Dada and Surrealism, and later the Neo Dada and Pop styles from the 1950s onwards. Both automatism and collage were methods that allowed Motherwell to remain creative and unleash his repertoire of imagery.

Motherwell acquired his love of modern art early in life. He fabricated and synthesised his own style, drawing at first from Paul Cézanne, then Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. One factor that united these artists is that so many worked in Provence. Motherwell drew an analogy with his own childhood experience living in California with its harsh light, keen edges and strong shadows. The artist was a fervent admirer of Matisse throughout his life, and like Matisse, Motherwell himself became a phenomenal colourist who sought out earthy ochres, brilliant yellows and oranges, startling reds and sky lit blues and violets.

The literary arts also influenced Motherwell, particularly Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé and other Symbolist poets, and of course, James Joyce. Then there were the Spanish poets Garcia Lorca and Roberto Alberti.

In his student days at Columbia University in New York, his professor Meyer Schapiro arranged for Motherwell to learn intaglio printing methods with the Swiss born Surrealist artist and émigré Kurt Seligmann. As Schapiro recalled, 'I thought he needed an older man who was a good technician as well as an imaginative painter, someone who did prints–etching and engravings'. There were many Surrealist émigrés in New York at this time, who had fled the Nazi presence in Europe, and Motherwell got to know then by frequenting cafés, bookshops and galleries in the city. Later in 1943, Motherwell attended another popular location for émigrés in New York, Stanley William Hayter's intaglio print studio Atelier 17. However, because of the emphasis placed on technique over subject matter at this workshop, it was ill-suited to Motherwell and he left.

Motherwell's contact with these artists and Surrealist poet and theorist André Breton continued and informed his view that there was a need for a new art in the United States as 'the art scene was parochial'. 'No one thought that we could ever produce truly great modern painting: only Europeans could,' he said, 'so we had nothing to lose by risking all'. Motherwell's view was that one of the creative principles for the new American art should be the Surrealists' psychic automatism or free association, and that became the driving principle of his own art. He believed that the new American art should be on a massive scale, with a boundless energy and almost thoughtless daring and frankness, comparing the 'fantasy, dreaminess, satire and black humour of the Surrealists'. This he set out to do.

Motherwell came to work at Tatyana Grosman's Universal Limited Art Editions workshop at West Islip, New York from 1962. Working in lithography, which was a technique undergoing a renaissance at the time in the United States, Motherwell applied tusche guided by his 'automatic' arm, creating compositions with wonderful calligraphic flourishes and free brushwork. This style of working continued throughout Motherwell's printmaking career when he worked at Ken Tyler's workshops.

Another Surrealist-inspired method of art practice was collage, which for Motherwell 'came to be my joy', although the process was for him was 'a painful precarious way of making order. The separate elements tend to carry on guerrilla warfare with each other'.Motherwell's collage prints, the America–la France variations series of nine prints, and multiple working proofs he made at the Tyler workshop reveal the painstaking process he undertook, like a pictorial diary in his battle to create order from chaos and finally produce the editioned 'effortless' imagery.

Over his career Motherwell explored and refined in what he considered an 'endless challenge' of a serial image which came to be known as the Spanish Elegy series. From 1948, Motherwell explored this iconic image in drawing, painting and later in printmaking. His constant search for the perfect rendition of this form was infinite, explaining:

My Elegies … are silent, monumental, more architectonic, a massing of black against white, those two sublime colors, when used as a color … The reason I've made so many works … that could be called series … They remain an endless challenge.

The origin of the elegy form emerged in the late 1940s during dark days when Motherwell was a young man. Deserted by his wife in 1948, Motherwell at first contemplated suicide and then turned to drink and to paint. He came across a forgotten drawing that he had developed to accompany a poem by Harold Rosenberg for the magazine Possibilities, which folded. Motherwell recalled that Rosenberg has written 'a very powerful, brutal, I would think Rimbaud-inspired poem. We agreed that I would handwrite the poem in my calligraphy and make a drawing or drawings to go with it and it was to be in black and white. So I began to think … about getting the brutality and aggression of his poem in some kind of abstract terms'. The iconic image then became an obsession, which 'reverberated' in his mind by its associations and according to the artist had 'a life of its own'. Motherwell considered himself part of the 1930 generation touched by the Spanish Civil War and for him, if the much loved motif referred to poetry, 'it should be to Lorca'.

In deference to the famed Spanish poet, the first Elegy was originally called At five in the afternoon–drawn from the repeated refrain in Lorca's poem, Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, which told of the tragic circumstances and loss of life of a brave and noble matador. The profound and dramatic nature of this theme, however, seems to have been lost on those who viewed the work in New York, who misconstrued its title as referring to the cocktail hour, revealing a telling cultural chasm. The abstract image, which in Motherwell's mind was imbued with the tragedy of death and Spanish history, seemed to be lost in translation and was interpreted by gallery-going New Yorkers as a reference to late afternoon martinis.

This confusion continued. Motherwell returned to the elegy on many occasions including for his 1966 mural New England Elegy for the John F Kennedy Federal Building in Boston. An earnest assistant curator responding to questions of the meaning of the work proposed, 'one black blotch may represent the profile of the President's head, a very direct and specific depiction of the most brutal moment of the tragedy, when Kennedy was struck by the bullet. The lines near the profile … represent either the trajectory of the bullets or spatters of blood'. Motherwell was intent on his abstractions embracing a reality of some kind and having an underlying content; they are not simply essays in form, line and colour. However, here the artist was faced yet again with a very literal and mundane interpretation of his requiem of grief, tragedy and loss, which was his lifelong obsession.

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