Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 17, 2014
Susan Davidson, Megan Fontanella, Brandon Taylor, and Jeffrey Warda Robert Motherwell: Early Collages Exh. cat. New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2013. 144 pp.; 124 color ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780892074976)
Exhibition schedule: Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, May 26–September 8, 2013; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, September 27, 2013–January 5, 2014
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Robert Motherwell. Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive (1943). Gouache, ink, oil, and pasted German decorative paper, colored paper, Japanese paper, and wood veneer on paperboard. 71.7 x 91.1 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Purchase. © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York. Photo: © The Museum of Modern Art, courtesy Dedalus Foundation, Inc.

Robert Motherwell: Early Collages gathered the artist’s most important works in that medium from 1943 through 1951. Expertly directed by Susan Davidson, senior curator at the Guggenheim, New York, the exhibition included many pieces that had not been shown publicly for decades and demonstrated the pivotal role that collage played in Motherwell’s early career. The artist was unique among those of his generation in creating important collages throughout his life.

The first impression yielded by the exhibition was Motherwell’s immediate and intense identification with the medium as well as his willingness to experiment in it. For instance, Joy of Living (1943) is composed of oil paint, gouache, pasted fabric, pasted paper, crayon, charcoal, and ink on paperboard; including the different types of paper, it contains thirteen materials. Collage allowed Motherwell to mediate between the specificity of varied supports that were often chosen to represent events in the outside world and the artist’s interpretation through the manipulation of those elements. In my conversations with Motherwell, he repeatedly referred to this balance between external and internal worlds as “the felt character of modern life.”

That “felt character” is particularly evident in Motherwell’s response to World War II. In my interviews with Motherwell between 1979 and 1980, he emphasized the “utter horror” and desperation he felt during much of the 1940s. My study of Motherwell’s early works (Robert S. Mattison, Robert Motherwell: The Formative Years, Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1987) connected those feeling to the terrifying world situation and aspects of the artist’s biography, including the sudden death of his father in 1943. In the early collages, Motherwell used materials such as fragments of a military terrain map, splattered red paint to suggest blood, sharp forms that he associated with wounding knives, webs of lines that connote snares and barbwire, and paint soaked into rice paper that he identified with blood-stained bandages. These materials with their violent associations are featured in such works on display as Joy of Living, the deeply ironic title of which refers to Henri Matisse’s famous painting, and Personage (Autoportrait) of 1943. As the situation for the Allies improved, Motherwell painted fragments of the declaration “Viva,” as if it were scrawled on a wall, in View from a High Tower (1944–45) and Viva (1946). Since my writing, important research has been done on these connections in a dissertation and subsequent articles by Gregory Gilbert and by Jack Flam and Katy Rogers in the recently published Motherwell catalogue raisonné (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012). It should be said that the superb catalogue raisonné will provide the baseline for Motherwell research for the foreseeable future.

In other collages of the 1940s, like Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive (1943), Motherwell referenced the Mexican Revolution to express his interest in humanitarian struggles, sacrifice, and death. The artist made important trips to Mexico in 1941 and in 1943. There, he was influenced profoundly by the constant reminders of death that were interwoven with celebrations of life, and he was particularly struck by the history of Pancho Villa, the famous revolutionary leader from Northern Mexico. As a child, Motherwell had suffered from severe asthma. He was sent from San Francisco to school in Southern California, a change of climate that he believed saved his life. He told me that this early experience preconditioned his association of southern cultures, first in Mexico and then in Spain, with meditations on life and death.

Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive introduced black stick figures which subsequently appear throughout the artist’s early collages and watercolors, including such works as Zapata Dead (1944), Three Personages Shot (1944), and La Resistance (1945). The stick figures provide a coherent structural backbone for the composition and suggest human presence without explicit illustration. In Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive, the figure to the left is splattered with red paint and restrained by geometric lines that resemble a coffin. The one to the right is painted over a collage element of wrapping paper, the patterns of which resemble lively brush marks. That figure features “alive” pink genitalia, yet it is also constrained within a coffin-like form. Motherwell pointed out to me that a sweeping brushstroke connects the two figures and that their order, dead and then alive again, robs death of its finality and suggests that death is a condition to be dwelt upon in life. He said to me, “All my life, I have been obsessed by death.”

Another aspect of Motherwell’s early exploration in collage—one in opposition to the works just discussed—is refinement. This sensibility is embodied by Mallarmé’s Swan (1943–44), originally called Mallarmé’s Dream. It is also found in Collage in Beige and Black (1944), Figure (1945), and Maria (1946). Motherwell’s undergraduate academic training at Stanford University was in French literature, and he maintained throughout his life that the most significant source for modernism was French Symbolist literature of the late nineteenth century. During the year that I spent at Motherwell’s studio, one of the projects he set himself was rereading Stéphane Mallarmé’s works together with significant critical writings about the poet.

For Motherwell, Mallarmé was the paradigm of artistic purity, intense care, and finely tuned aesthetic relationships, and Motherwell was particularly interested in the way the poet interwove words and visual imagery. For Mallarmé, the dream was a state of alternative reality and a metaphor for artistic creativity. In the large-scale Mallarmé’s Swan, a sky blue ground is complemented by areas of radiant yellow. All of the abstract elements are carefully spaced and balanced so that shapes just touch or meet point to point. The oval collage element near the center of the work is reflected by its negative hovering just above and by the delicately drawn oval at the base. Expressive paint handling is relegated to a small area in the lower portion of the collage. This patch entails what the artist called in a related context “all the chaos I could stand.” Just as collages like Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive anticipate the somber Elegies to the Spanish Republic (1948–67), so Mallarmé’s Swan foretells Motherwell’s lyrical series Open (1968–72).

Instinctively, Motherwell realized that collage suited his predisposition for constant revision. In light of the artist’s later paintings and his tendency to work in extended series, one could argue that prolonged periods of rethinking and revising are key aspects of his oeuvre. In the early collages, Motherwell was captivated by the process of cutting and tearing the paper, trying out compositional formats, and moving the parts even after initially attaching them with glue. Such works as The Displaced Table (1943), Jeune Fille (1944), and The Poet (1947) display layers of revisions. As a specific example, the splattered red paint which suggests droplets of blood on the upper torso of the left-hand figure in Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive was originally hidden by a collage element that Motherwell subsequently tore off. For the artist, exposing that area had an emotional charge. In 1946, Motherwell wrote, “The sensation of operating on the world is very strong in the medium of [collage]. . . . One cuts and chooses and shifts and pastes, and sometimes tears off and begins again” (“Beyond the Aesthetic,” Design 47 [April 1946]: 38–39). Motherwell’s important paintings of the same period like Recuerdo de Coyoacán (1942) and The Spanish Prison (Window) (1943–44) are more constrained. Several examples of these might have been included in the exhibition for comparison.

An important feature of Motherwell’s early collages is scale. While some are intimate in size, the largest examples range from one hundred to one hundred and fifty centimeters in height. For example, Collage in Yellow and White, with Torn Elements (1949, 120.3 × 90.2 cm.) features more than twenty-five pieces of roughly torn paper fragments overlaid with expressive paint handling. The scale lends the work a visual authority and gravity that departs from the intimacy usually associated with the medium. Motherwell, who was already thoroughly versed in modern art history, was aware of this distinction and had studied important, more modestly scaled, examples of the medium available in New York City, including Synthetic Cubist pieces and works by Hans Arp and Joan Miró. The experimental character of Motherwell’s best early collages and their authoritative scale provide one predecessor for the explosion of the collage medium after mid-century by artists ranging from Robert Rauschenberg to Mark Bradford.

Considering the fragility of the medium, Motherwell’s early collages are in good condition and seem fresh. The exception is some significant fading of color, especially a magenta favored by the artist that has proven fugitive. For instance, in Mallarmé’s Swan, the flesh-toned vertical bar was originally a brilliant magenta element. An exploration of this issue is featured in a catalogue essay by Jeffrey Warda, conservator of paper for the Guggenheim Museum. Warda creates computer renderings of several collages that reveal their original luminosity.

Installations at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum building in New York are always a challenge. The Motherwell exhibition occupied rooms on the fourth and fifth floor adjoining the rotunda. Unfortunately, the entrance on the fifth floor is cramped and has low ceilings. This space housed on one wall Joy of Living, Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive, and Mallarmé’s Swan, perhaps the most important collages in the exhibition. These works deserved better placement. The narrow circular passageway extending off this room made such key works as Personage (Autoportrait) and View from a High Tower (1944–45) difficult to see. Collages such as Blue Air (1946), The Poet (1947), and Elegy (1948) in the larger room on the fourth floor fared much better.

The exhibition was accompanied by an excellent catalogue that reproduces all the works in color and provides a variety of supporting illustrations. An essay by Davidson thoroughly explores Motherwell’s relationship to Peggy Guggenheim and her Art of This Century gallery. It was Guggenheim’s invitation to Motherwell, William Baziotes, and Jackson Pollock to participate in her invitational Exhibition of Collage that led to Motherwell’s first engagement with the medium. An essay by Brandon Taylor places Motherwell in the context of existential thinking of the era, and the text by Warda contains discoveries about the physical process of making the works and their original appearance. Finally, an important contribution by Megan M. Fontanella, associate curator at the Guggenheim Museum, explores Motherwell’s collages in the context of his experiences of World War II, his feeling for the Mexican Revolution as humanitarian struggle, and his meditations on death. These associations introduced in the early collages prove essential to Motherwell’s most evocative works of later years.

Robert S. Mattison
Marshall R. Metzgar Professor of Art History, Lafayette College

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