Artists Motherwell and Marin: two American giants to be reckoned with

Anyone still harboring doubts about Robert Motherwell's quality and importance as an artist would do well to visit "Robert Motherwell & Black," M. Knoedler & Co.'s current exhibition here.

Drawn from the 1979 Motherwell retrospective held at the William Benton Museum of Art at the University of Connecticut, this exhibition or works devoted in one way or another to black, should impress even the most diehard antimodernist that Motherwell is a force to be reckoned with and should totally vindicate those who had already accepted him as a major American voice in art some 30 or so years ago.

The show ranges in time from a 1947 acrylic on canvas to a 1981 lithograph, and in style from works that are almost totally black to others in which black serves as the key color or activator. (And let me add that Motherwell is one of the very few painters for whom black is indeed a color.) It includes examples of his "Spanish Elegy" series (the image that first really nailed down his international reputation and to which he has returned from time to time), a slightly modified version of his "Open" series, some of the "Plato's Cave" series, and assorted paintings and collages of the last 25 years.

Put that way it may not sound like much, and indeed, a verbal description of Motherwell's art could make it sound downright trivial: generally large canvases consisting of huge, hulking, irregularly shaped black forms intercut by white; splashes of black paint against white; large areas of grays or one large area of a flat color accented by black and possibly set off by a line or two; collages made up of torn bits of paper (and frequently including clusters of postage stamps) and a few squiggles and smudges of color, etc. Nothing, certainly to get very excited about. And yet these works have the authority and "on target" quality found only among the works of the few genuine masters any age is permitted to have -- those who make their artistic presence felt regardless of style or theme.

Motherwell is without doubt a 20th-century American (and world) master. I only wish we had the good sense to share with the Japanese and Koreans their excellent custom of awarding "national treasure" status to certain special artists and craftsmen. If we did, I couldn't think of anyone who at this moment deserves the title of "national treasure" more than Robert Motherwell.

This first-rate show at M. Knoedler & Co. will run through March 12. John Marin

John Marin is another American master who is having a showing of his work at this time. Although most of his pieces in the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum here are relatively small watercolors, their total impact is enormous and in many ways similar to Motherwell's.

Born in 1870, Marin studied first in Philadelphia and then in New York before leaving for Europe in 1905. He stayed there for five years, traveling extensively and absorbing various influences, most particularly those of the Post-Impressionists and Whistler. Upon his return to the United States he began to exhibit with Alfred Stieglitz at his gallery "291," an association which lasted until Stieglitz's death in 1946.

The largest portion of the works in this exhibition are from the Stieglitz bequest which in turn constitutes a goodly portion of the Metropolitan's large holdings of Marin's oils, watercolors, and prints. Among them are many of Marin's major pieces.

This also is a first-rate show. Walking among these 58 crisp and dynamic articulations of nature's elemental forces, I was reminded again of what an extraordinary vision Marin had -- and how early in the century it sprang into full bloom.

His staccato, shorthand approach to watercolor, which caused him to render only the absolute essentials of what he depicted, was already very much in evidence in his 1909-1910 watercolors of Paris and the Tyrolian mountains. But this method was quickly superseded by the cymballike clashing together of lines and masses in his early studies of the Brooklyn Bridge. A 1910 version of these is included here, and it is a veritable explosion of pictorial elements that yet somehow remain in a perfect state of equilibrium due to Marin's extraordinary control of opposites and of formal tensions. It's a minor masterpiece, surely one of this century's outstanding works in this medium.

Beginning in the middle to late 1910s, and continuing on for the rest of his life, Marin's pictorial explosions became less overtly eruptive and more structurally self-contained --and settled into what could be described as a kind of intense pictorial debate between earth, sea, and sky in the form of horizontals, verticals, and diagonals activated by a few dashes and slashes of paint.

The best of these paintings are absolutely dazzling, and have the impact of an instant caught precisely and emphatically. We see not a flat accounting or description of what lies before us, but a flash of its totality as represented by its concentrated and focused forms, lines, light, energies, movements, and textural realities. Marin, in other words, presents us with the perceptual experiencem of viewing the wild coast of Maine, a few pine trees tensing against the wind, the wild movement of a small boat on a choppy sea, or the dynamic rhythms of skyscrapers in downtown Manhattan. And in this he was without peers.

It's an exhibition which should be seen --and I suggest that that be done in conjunction with the Motherwell show. The Marin exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum will remain open to the public through March 15.

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