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Robert Motherwell: The East Hampton Years, 1944-1952

Robert Motherwell, At Five in the Afternoon, 1948-1949. Casein and graphite on paperboard,
15 x 20 in. Helen Frankenthaler Foundation ©VAGA, NY


Robert Motherwell: The East Hampton Years, 1944-1952


A pioneering abstract expressionist, Robert Motherwell once said, “A painting is made by a series of mistakes.”  What a wonderful way to see art making, especially when you are trying to create something adventurous and new. The subject of a recent survey show at Guild Hall in East Hampton of early works made during a developmental period when the artist spent time on the East End of Long Island, Motherwell later said, “I made some of the best work of my life there.”

Curated by art historian Phyllis Tuchman, the comprehensive show began with paintings and works on paper made by the artist when he was just in his late-20s. He had his first solo show that year, in 1944, at Peggy Guggenheim’s legendary gallery, Art of This Century, which is a remarkable achievement considering that most of the abstract expressionists didn’t gain recognition until they were well into their 40s.

Motherwell employed automatism related to the surrealist movement in his abstract painting In Beige with Sand (1945), which captured the East Hampton beach in winter through several painted circles, stripes and accompanying black linear brushstrokes on a canvas that was sprinkled with sand. Line Figure in Beige and Mauve (1946) also utilizes sand to create texture for a ground that supports and abstract form overlaid with a Picassoesque line drawing of an animated figure. These experimental canvases were both exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York around the time that they were painted.

Robert Motherwell, In Beige with Sand, 1945. Oil on cardboard with sand and wood veneer collage,
44-7/8 x 35 in. St. Louis Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Pulitzer Jr. ©VAGA, NY

The Poet (1947) is a fine example of a Motherwell collage painting. The overlay of pasted papers and painted abstract forms is well ahead of the work of his peers. He traded the artwork with Mark Rothko for one of his works and this piece, which is still in the Rothko family collection, was exhibited in Robert Motherwell: Early Collages at the Guggenheim Museum in New York just last year. Another outstanding painting, which seems like it was probably based on a collage, is The Voyage (1949). Painted on a long roll of brown seamless paper and later mounted on Masonite board, at 94 inches wide it functions more like a mural. In the collection of the Museum of Modern Art since 1955, it’s seen as a precursor to the artist’s seminal series of Elegy to the Spanish Republic paintings.

Equally as intriguing are Interior with Pink Nude (1951) and Wall Painting III (1952), which pay homage to Matisse’s cut-out works on paper with their bold flower-like forms. Motherwell thought of the shapes like capriccios, which are musical compositions in somewhat free form. With layers of brushwork and evolving forms, each canvas is true to the artist’s idea of a painting being a compilation of carefree mistakes.

Providing historical reference were a selection of books on modern art that Motherwell significantly edited during the time, and rounding out the display was a model of Motherwell’s dynamic house and studio, designed by French architect Pierre Chareau, famous for the Maison de Verre in Paris, as well as a series of photographs made of the structure by Alastair Gordon before it was razed in 1985.

With the recent Guggenheim show, an exhibition that puts Motherwell’s art in the context of contemporary artists (curated by Alex Bacon at Middlemarch in Brussels) and an upcoming show of the artist's works on paper at Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York, a new appreciation of this important American modernist seems to be fully underway. WM

Robert Motherwell: The East Hampton Years, 1944-1952. Installation view at Guild Hall, East Hampton. Photo by Gary Mamay

Robert Motherwell, The Voyage, 1949. Oil and tempera on paper mounted on composition board, 48 x 94 in.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller, 1955 ©VAGA, NY

 Robert Motherwell, Tablets of Moses, Jacob’s Ladder and Menorah, 1951. Oil on composition board mounted on aluminum, 48 x 60 in. The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Philip and Lynn Straus Fund in memory of Joy Ungerleider-Mayerson and Dedalus Foundation Gift

Robert Motherwell: The East Hampton Years, 1944-1952. Installation view at Guild Hall, East Hampton. Photo by Gary Mamay

Robert Motherwell, Line Figure in Beige and Mauve, 1946. Oil on canvas board, 30 x 21 7/8 in.
Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT ©VAGA, NY

Robert Motherwell, Wall Painting III, 1952. Oil on fiberboard, 48 x 72 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum ©VAGA, NY

Robert Motherwell: The East Hampton Years, 1944-1952. Installation view at Guild Hall, East Hampton. Photo by Gary Mamay

Robert Motherwell, The Poet, 1947. Oil and pasted papers on paperboard, 55-5/8 x 39-1/8 in.
Collections of Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko ©VAGA, NY

Robert Motherwell, The Homely Protestant, 1948. Oil and tempera on composition board, 97-3/4 x 48-1/4 in.
Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the artist, 1987 ©VAGA, NY

Robert Motherwell: The East Hampton Years, 1944-1952. Installation view at Guild Hall, East Hampton. Photo by Gary Mamay



Paul Laster

Paul Laster is a writer, editor, curator, artist and lecturer. He’s a contributing editor at ArtAsiaPacific and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art and writer for Time Out New York, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, Galerie Magazine, Sculpture, Art & Object, Cultured, Architectural Digest, Garage, Surface, Ocula, Observer, ArtPulse, Conceptual Fine Arts and Glasstire. He was the founding editor of Artkrush, started The Daily Beast’s art section, and was art editor of Russell Simmons’ OneWorld Magazine, as well as a curator at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, now MoMA PS1.



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