ROBERT MOTHERWELL reminds us that ``seeing'' is not simply an activity of the eye. He suggests that the body itself is an organ of perception and art a form of transformation. These points came to mind at a recent exhibition of Motherwell's works on paper at the Associated American Artists Gallery here. The show celebrated the artist's 45 years of printmaking. During that time, he has produced over 400 works on paper, surely one of the largest bodies of such work by a major American painter, of which a spectrum of pieces dating from 1963 to 1989 was displayed.
Together they established that Motherwell's work is an alternative perception of our world. Of all the Abstract Expressionists, Motherwell (the youngest of the founders) has a unique and powerful capacity for combining expression, intelligence, and intuition. What he has achieved is an elaborate array of visual conventions built upon an entirely different conception of ``seeing'' from the one previously understood in Western culture.
Most of the prints in the show - ``The Prints of Robert Motherwell: A Retrospective'' - resulted from the the artist's decision in 1972 to establish an etching press in his own studio and to work with master printer Catherine Mosley. With a profound awareness of Motherwell's sensibility, Mosley has become a collaborator in his efforts to create an important contribution to American printmaking.
Among the works were eloquent pieces such as ``Cavern'' (1989), a startling study of a single, powerful, black form against a background of dark, swirling wash; ``Automatism Elegy'' (1979-80), a remarkable work in black, one that reconfirms Motherwell's conception of black as a color and not simply a tone or buffer for other hues; ``The Razor's Edge'' (1986), dramatic black architectural forms on a rust background; and ``Blue Elegy'' 1987), a warm, evocative use of blue and gray tones in a monumental composition that provides a sense of quietude and memory.
What radiated from the cumulative experience of seeing these works was an image of Motherwell himself - a stately man of firm conviction as well as immense humanity, an artist of great refinement and rare intelligence. Everywhere in his work one discovers not only a worldliness but a pervasive intuition and vividness of imagination.
Don't think for a moment, however, that I am promoting the romantic contention that smart people don't make great artists or the clich'e that Motherwell is ``an intellectual painter who talks a good painting.''
What this artist actually achieves utterly outdistances intellect - an evolved, informed, and articulate sensibility in purely painterly terms. What makes Motherwell unique both as a person and an artist is his exceptional capacity to deny his intellect and conduct us more deeply than any other American painter into the realm of both the senses and the imagination. His capacity to illuminate a vision is surely a result of an uncommon intelligence, but behind his articulate cerebration is the marvelous nakedness of the works themselves.
In many ways, Motherwell is the embodiment of the Eastern ideal of using ones's ability as a thinker to reach a place where thought cannot penetrate.
Yet Motherwell's images do not obscurely substitute ``reality'' for common sense. They are not distortions or abstractions that allude to hidden meanings. Motherwell's prints mean what they are. And to share that meaning we must lend ourselves to the work of art. We must become the print we are seeing, for that is the creative aspect of any artistic experience.
We cannot expect anything to happen to us when we simply look at or try to understand a work of art. It is little wonder that people who expect to experience art by merely looking at it and understanding it are constantly frustrated by their failure to respond to what is in front of them. A diagram may be a realistic statement about life, but it is a substitute for life. And that's rather easy to achieve. A painting, however, is life itself. And that is not easy.
For Motherwell, art is an effervescence of living, or as French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty puts it, ``it is impossible to say that nature ends here and that expression starts there.''
This imagery springs from the innermost consciousness of the artist and, in learning to grasp its aesthetic premises, we manage to slip past ourselves and those stern sentries of our cultural isolation. We are able to peer momentarily into a reflection of ourselves from the other side of perception. Robert Motherwell opens up the real with the imagery of the abstract, giving us a brief look inside an alien cosmos before the door slams shut. Without such art as his that door remains closed.