Prior to his artistic career, Robert Motherwell had pursued serious study of philosophy during the 1930s as an undergraduate student at Stanford University and later in the doctoral philosophy program at Harvard. While his training covered the broad historical spectrum of European philosophy, he was particularly drawn to the American school of Pragmatism, which included the works of both William James and John Dewey. While most art historians emphasize Motherwell’s strong interest in Dewey’s Art as Experience, I am currently researching the relation of his early art to James’s theories in his books Essays in Radical Empiricism and A Pluralistic Universe. In these writings, James defined perception of reality as a “quasi chaos,” a vague array of multiple and shifting sensory facts. He argued that this first phase of perception is followed by a reflective stage in which these sensory elements are selectively combined to form more comprehensible conceptual structures. However, James was also wary of how this conceptual response orders experiential particulars into fixed patterns of thought, making it necessary to renew perception by returning to our initial, pure and fragmentary state of experience.
Motherwell’s extensive oeuvre is divided into a variety of separate media that includes painting, drawing, collage and printmaking. While he experimented with mixed media approaches throughout his career, he tended to ascribe specific aesthetic and technical values to each of these areas of practice, as Katy Rogers noted in the catalogue raisonné of his drawings. Painting for Motherwell was the most deliberate and conceptually driven medium and reflects a developmental process in which he moved from an instinctive, spontaneous phase to a more conscious form of artistic structuring. Motherwell had studied with D.W. Prall at Harvard and his painting method was strongly influenced by theories in Prall’s book Aesthetic Analysis, which were indebted to Dewey’s precepts on the organic unity of artworks. For Dewey, artistic experience is based on perceiving the orderly development and coalescence of interrelated elements. However, it is important to note that even Dewey was opposed to a permanent state of experienced unity, asserting there also needs to be tension, disorder and a sense of disruptive novelty to art. Not only do these qualities mirror the dynamic and uncertain reality of lived experience, they also encourage the viewer towards a more active, interpretive engagement with artistic form.
In contrast to the pictorial and conceptual order of his paintings from the 1940s, Motherwell’s early drawings reflect his equally strong penchant for an immediate, random and open-ended approach. While this radical sensibility has usually been related to his experimentation with Surrealist automatism, it can also be traced to his study of Pragmatism which he integrated with European modernist aesthetics. Some of Motherwell’s early drawings do contain more uniform and purist geometric structures, such as his series of delicately rendered untitled works dating from 1944. However, I am most intrigued by his drawings that exhibit what I would define as a “Pragmatist methodology” influenced by James’s perceptual theories. Many of the ink drawings in The Mexican Sketchbook (1941) were executed in a bold, impulsive manner and are composed of swirling, fragmentary elements that are interspersed with larger, heavily brushed shapes.
This same disjunctive configuration of abstract forms can be seen in Untitled and The Structure of Space from 1941. In these works, there is the sense of an interrelated process of composing and decomposing shapes as drawn marks coalesce and then appear dispersed across the paper surface. This follows James’s description of empirical perception as an interplay of individual sensory elements that are formed into resolved conceptual structures which must be reconceived by returning to a raw, indeterminate state of awareness. It should be noted that one of Motherwell’s favorite poets, Wallace Stevens, was also inspired by James’s philosophy of radical empiricism, making it a central theme of his poems in the late thirties and early forties. In many of these poems, Stevens uses his creative principle of “poetic decreation,” in which he resists using conventional metaphorical language to represent perceptual reality. He would often employ more ideal, unified forms of poetic imagery that are subverted by being redescribed and reduced to their sensory particulars, an assortment of isolated objects and empirical qualities. Motherwell’s and Stevens’s interest in James’s perceptual concepts was reinforced by their mutual involvement in an intellectual community in the 1940s that included the philosopher Jean Wahl, who was the leading authority in France on William James and Pragmatism.