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Robert Motherwell and David Smith: Paper Trails

The three artists exchanged letters across long geographic distances, with Smith chiefly writing from his home in Bolton Landing in the Adirondack Mountains, and Motherwell and Frankenthaler writing to Smith from their homes in Provincetown and New York City or while on international vacations. Yet the letters tell only a partial story: The artists’ drawings, paintings, and sculptures reveal a largely non-verbal and, arguably, more intimate dialogue.

Who and What Are Drawing Thus?

Approximately two years after Robert Motherwell abruptly stopped working on his “Lyric Suite” (1965), Roland Barthes, in his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” inquired about the status of the narrative voice in Honoré de Balzac’s Sarrasine (1830). “Who is speaking thus?” the French critic wondered. Is it “the hero of the story,” “Balzac the individual,” “Balzac the author,” or “Romantic psychology?” Concluding that one can never know, Barthes goes on to define writing as a space where the author “slips away,” as it is a medium where all identity, especially that of the writer, evaporates into the ether of language.

Motherwell, Drawing Between Painting and Print

Because drawing was Motherwell’s medium of greatest immediacy—as fast as a bullwhip, he said—its capacity for speed of execution allowed him to set down multiple ideas in quick succession and therefore to work out those ideas over a more extended period of time.

Robert Motherwell’s Opens and Elegies: Drawing as a Living Art

These drawings need no elaboration. As the artist himself pointed out, their famous origin was simple. He had seen one of his paintings leaning against a larger, more vertical painting and had outlined in charcoal the edges of the small painting on the larger one, creating a door-like image. He then found the proportion “rather beautiful…"

Motherwell’s Early Drawings and Pragmatist Perception

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.

Robert Motherwell: Blood-Stained Papers

From the start of his art making practice, Robert Motherwell worked simultaneously across media, producing paintings, collages, and works on paper in near equal measure with a remarkable consistency of vocabulary. It was, however, his early engagement with paper rather than canvas where Motherwell found his confidence as an artist.

Motherwell: Abstraction and Rebellion

In his drawings, as in his writings, Motherwell argued that the expressive tools of abstraction were not only valid, but among the most powerful means an artist possesses for fully communicating human experience and feeling, including political events and realities.

Robert Motherwell Illustrating Poetry

In his eulogy for Robert Motherwell the English critic Bryan Robertson remarked, “No other artist in this century could have been quite so much in love with literature, and, above all, poetry.”

The Artist and the Poet

Throughout his life, Robert Motherwell had a deep passion for poetry, which informed his aesthetic and nourished his practice as an artist.

Encounters with the Unknown in a Catalogue Raisonné Project

How can we observe Motherwell’s reworking of his canvases (and titles) through their exhibition history? How did critics understand his early work, before signifiers like “Irascible,” “New York School,” and “Abstract Expressionism” cohered around Motherwell and his contemporaries? My colleagues and I were enmeshed in these questions (and more, so many more questions), as we delved into the pleasures (and frustrations) of research.

Thoughts on Drawing, 1970

I happen to like the line drawings of very small children, better, in fact, than the work of anyone except masters. The closest thing to it, when children use pencils (colored or not), is the quill strokes of Rembrandt, the more spontaneous and less “spelled out” drawings by Picasso for Guernica, and a few stick drawings on paper by Pollock.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2023

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