SERENA CHON, HOLTON ARMS SCHOOL, CLASS ‘19
As one of the founders of Abstract Expressionism, Robert Motherwell was a principal figure in twentieth century art. Educated at first Stanford University with a degree in philosophy and later at Columbia University under the renowned art historian Meyer Schapiro, Motherwell had more formal education than most members of the Abstract Expressionists, and thus
became a leading spokesman for the group, because he was able to articulate his views on art and politics in a coherent fashion. Under Schapiro’s influence, Motherwell became exposed to Surrealist artists, such as Roberto Matta, Marcel Duchamp, Yves Tanguy, and Andre Breton.
From his contact with these artists, Motherwell embraced the Surrealist technique of automatism, because he saw it as a means for artists to uncover their creativity without imposing a particular style. In an essay published in 1949, Motherwell wrote, “Every artist’s problem is to invent
himself.” Thus, like his fellow Abstract Expressionists, Motherwell tried to meet the challenge of inventing himself by using artistic techniques like psychic automatism as way to define his artistic identity.
In addition to Surrealism, Schapiro also exposed Motherwell to the socialist ideas of Leon Trotsky, a leading figure in the Russian Revolution of 1917, which toppled the tsarist regime in Russia and eventually established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
Due to a power struggle following the death of the first Soviet Premier, Vladimir Lenin, in 1924, Trotsky was exiled by his main rival, Joseph Stalin, and eventually made his way to Mexico where he lived until his assassination by agents of Stalin in 1940. Unlike Stalin, who believed in communism in one country, Trotsky promoted the idea of “permanent world revolution,” which he believed would unite working people throughout the world in the cause of social equality. In 1941, a year after Trotsky’s death, Motherwell traveled with Roberto Matta to Mexico, which was still a haven for socialist ideas having recently had its own revolution. Upon returning from Mexico, Motherwell decided to make painting his primary vocation, and he began a series of paintings and drawings that allowed him to explore what would become some of the central themes of his art: life and death, violence and revolution.
In 1949, Motherwell began what is perhaps his most famous series of paintings, his Elegy to the Spanish Republic. Motherwell has started the series with another painting entitled At Five in the Afternoon, which was a refrain from Federico Garcia Lorca’s poem Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Meijas. In At Five in the Afternoon, Motherwell uses a monochrome palette and regular intervals of ovals and bars in contrast to more emotional elements, such as gestural brushstrokes and some drips. Motherwell described the ovals and bars, palette and drips as an expression of his feelings of loss, despair, and abandonment. The enormous scale of the paintings in the series give them a universal sense of tragedy. For Motherwell, as for many people during the thirties and forties, the death of Lorca at the hands of the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War was not only a great injustice, it was a symbol of how progressive artists had to combat reactionary cultural values.
Works like Motherwell’s Elegy series made him a leading member in the New York School, an informal group of artists, writers, poets, musicians, and dancers, who represented America’s first real contribution to vanguard art. Motherwell believed that the United States,
especially after World War II, should take a leading role in the world—not only politically but culturally. Through his education in art history from Meyer Schapiro at Columbia University, Motherwell came to believe that by embracing European modernist traditions, such as Cubism and Expressionism, American artists could establish their own avant-garde traditions, and not just follow those of Europe. Motherwell’s desire to elevate American art lead him to figures like Peggy Guggenheim, who through her Art of This Century gallery became one of the leading promoters of Abstract Expressionism. Guggenheim gave Motherwell his first one-person show, and along with Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and other leading artists among the Abstract Expressionists promoted him not only as artistic innovator, but also as a emblem of American freedom. Interestingly, as a student at Columbia, Schapiro, a Trotskyite, warned Motherwell that abstract artists’ supposed freedom to express themselves was only an illusion, because in a capitalist society they ultimately were a the mercy of the marketplace.
Schapiro’s warning proved all too true. In addition to Peggy Guggenheim, another key patrons of the Abstract Expressionists was the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Founded in 1929 by Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, mother of Nelson Rockefeller, the future governor of New York and vice-president of the United States, the MoMA played a leading role in advancing “the ideological needs of its officers during a period of virulent anticommunism and an intensifying ‘cold war’” (Eva Cockcroft, “Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War,” Francis Franscina, ed., Pollock and After: The Critical Debate, New York: Harper & Row, 1985, 126). The MoMA included Motherwell in its The New American Painting exhibition, which was shown throughout Europe in 1958 and 1959. In 1965 the MoMA gave Motherwell a retrospective, thus firmly establishing him as one of the dominant artists within the new American avant-garde.
By the time Motherwell began his London Series II in 1971, a series of screen prints that were a part of his Open series, he was an established artist. In contrast to his Elegy series, which is expressive, Motherwell’s London series is minimalist. In it, he uses a limited palette with predominantly white and blue. It is reminiscent of the adobe facades of Mexican houses with well-proportioned doors and windows. The work is cerebral and not emotional like his Elegy series. Likewise, it is intimate and not monumental as was his earlier Abstract Expressionist work. Motherwell’s change in style reflects his change in politics. The left-wing, republican views that inspired his Elegies gave way to a conservative outlook by the 1970s. The use of basic geometric forms, emptied of political content, reveals the influence of the Cold War not only on Motherwell’s politics, but also his art.