Robert Motherwell: Bonding the Inner With Image
'I HAVE a feeling," Robert Motherwell once said in an interview, "that in many artists, when they finally find their style, it's not what they originally wanted to do at all, but it turns out to be what they are best at doing. And it would be a foolish man who would do something else."Though he was talking specifically about Jackson Pollock, it seems altogether feasible that this notion also applied to himself. For a start, he - like Pollock - was by no means the only American painter in his circle who was very conscious of this necessity to "find his style." Many of them, viewed in retrospect, can be seen to have floundered around and experimented with a kind of common but not particularly distinctive imagery and technique, before "discovering themselves." It is almost a relief to th e viewer - as well as a revelation - when, in an artist's chronology, the discovery dawns. "Finding their style" meant much more than just arriving at some sort of adroit facility of hand and eye that suited them. It was wrapped up in the conviction that an artist's "style" is the very symbol and mark of his individuality. In fact, style as "skill" in this case received a needed shock: These American artists were intent to disguise self-conscious skill or disrupt it, and present their images with a kind of automatist roughness or even savagery. One of the names suggested as a catch-all phrase for the work of these artists - who eventually settled down permanently as the "Abstract Expressionists was "Abstract Symbolism." In some ways it might have been the better name. Because of the way in which artists such as Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Motherwell himself arrived at and then explored bold and large images of rather basic form, the direct identification of the artist's character with his imagery became intense. To anyone at all familiar with their work, the mere mention of the artist's name instantly evokes a typical image - and vice versa. The recognition, in that image, of the artist's peculiar and significant vision is crucial. This is also true, of course, of other and earlier artists. Say "Constable" or "Rembrandt," and the character and style of their paintings, even though it changed throughout their careers, is called to mind. But so also, and just as importantly as their style, is their subject: Consta ble's clouds and hedgerows, Rembrandt's self-portraits. IN varying degrees, however, the Abstract Expressionists' images are style and subject in one. Maybe they were inspired by cityscape, say, or by some ancient form of calligraphy, but it is the strong, unmistakable, even raw image of their own making that is resonant with their individuality rather than their vision of the world around them. Is that "abstraction"? Perhaps, though most of the "Abstract Expressionists" not only denied they were "Expressionists" (at least in relation to the German Expressionism of earlier in the century), they also disputed the idea that they were "abstract" painters. It seems that they gave up the figure, when they did, with reluctance, but in order that their paintings might contain no element to distract from the main purpose: to image their individuality or what Motherwell described as "inner semblance." Verbally eloquent about painting, Motherwell was not one of those artists who can manage little more than an expressive grunt on the subject nearest to their heart. But he could, nevertheless, be disarmingly simple or direct when talking about painting. He recognized that words are inadequate when used to talk about painting, because painting is essentially speechless. What he did not do was make the mistake of pretentious overcomplexity so often indulged by writers on art. So he could write, for instance: "As you fiddle around with the malleable, plastic stuff of paint, you begin to shape a sense of your own inner semblance." And he talked also about "the shock of recognition" that a painter working in this improvisatory way sometimes has when the image and the inner semblance happen to coincide. But this immediate identification of inner semblance and painted image has its dangers. The image can only too easily become a kind of signature that a viewer instantly recognizes but scarcely looks at. And the artist can find himself or herself in a situation where the characteristic image becomes a kind of ritual. Motherwell, in fact, developed more than one outward symbol of his inner "I." Probably the one that springs to most people's minds is that primordial confrontation of looming black forms and white background called, "Elegy to the Spanish Republic." The Elegy series began in 1948 and continued, with some gaps, well into the late 1980s. Its typically horizontal format, its large size, its great black vertical area and intervening black (approximate oval) forms, were a kind of organic geometry of monumental form that was entirely his own self-symbol, however much others have tried to read it politically, representationally, or even biologically. The ways in which he was able to re-form, if not precisely repeat, this Elegy imagery over so many years, is at least remarkable, and often surprisingly moving. He can be found in the late 70s for example, painting a gigantic "Reconciliation Elegy" (10 feet high, 30 feet long) that achieved new heights of heroic grandeur. There is no doubt that heroism is an ingredient of these large solemn paintings and an ingredient of their kind of Americanism (though Motherwell was always concerned to emphasize the u niversality of his art). To hear him describe what it meant to him to paint "Reconciliation Elegy" is to realize the scale of his American ambition (not to mention a touch of Moby Dick): "The brush," he wrote, "was as long and heavy as a wet mop. I felt like a sailor mopping a ship's deck under a black starry sky ... calm anxiety, anxious solicitude. "The canvas was so big underfoot, and beginning to stir, like a white whale." MOTHERWELL'S Americanism, however, is relative. He was much traveled, and his initial impetus towards painting all stemmed from the European surrealists who had found their way to New York to escape fascism - plus some consciousness of the Mexican muralists and, of course, of Picasso. When in mid-career he was making collages and prints rather than large paintings, a side of his character surfaced that is actually very European - very French: a mellifluent almost soft touch, a niceness of placement, and gentleness of color. His series of paintings known as "Open" were some sort of response to minimal art in the late '60s and '70s, and are quite different from the Elegies. They are almost a meeting of Newman with Mondrian with color-field painting: neither quite spare nor quite lush, rather rich, rather poor, loose-tight. His return to the looming Elegies looks like a reassertion, in the light of new experiences, of an earlier exploration: He called these late ones "barbaric and megalithic." So they are; but Motherwell, who died recently, had little of Pollock's violence (though some of his large-scale splurge-splash gestures in black do show him musing, as it were, about Pollock's achievements in his own much more conscious terms). His art seems generally to have been one of a courageously judged balance - just on the edge of imbalance - between "both spontaneity and correction in equal measure," as he neatly expressed it. His career had the seriousness and dedication of a great painter. Ho w the consensus of history will rate him remains to be seen.