For someone who was a great proponent of automatic painting and then the kind of expressive abstract aesthetic that allowed American painters to break free of European Modernist precedent, Robert Motherwell never appeared to me to realize fully his own intentions. In fact, it was other artists from that period — Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning in particular — who seemed more willing to take them to their farthest extremes.
Like those artists, Motherwell found East Hampton a good place to find the peace and quiet he needed to work. By 1944, he already had a studio in Amagansett, four years after moving to New York City at the age of 25, and he completed a Quonset hut compound with the French architect Pierre Chareau in 1946, on four acres he had bought in Georgica for $1,200.
After the house was torn down in 1985, the artist told The New York Times that he had done some of his best work while living there from 1946 to 1951, including developing the “Spanish Elegy” theme. (The house was bought in 1952 by the late Barney Rosset, the publisher of Grove Press, and he had it until 1980. Motherwell died in 1991.)
Abstract Expressionism’s realization was as broad as the differing artists who painted within its era, and could touch on many themes: a post-nuclear world and couched Jungian ideals and symbols, for instance. Yet it made its most significant and characteristic impact in action painting, aesthetic brawn overpowering the brain and its theories. The most powerful works of the period grab the gut and assault the eyes. Thought comes later. In contrast, the cool theoretical underpinnings of Minimalism that came a decade or so later are far more suited to its resulting art.
Motherwell’s works were ponderous, informed by years of schooling in philosophy and art history at Stamford, Harvard, and Columbia, and his own writings and critical reviews of art. His series “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” is so grounded in the weight of history and death that those paintings lose the freeform non-objectivism that a simple “Untitled, No. 1” implies. Typically, I prefer brains to brawn. Yet in this context, the application of his learning and worldview just doesn’t seem compelling.
Therefore, it was a revelation to enjoy the current “Robert Motherwell: Early Collages” exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, a surprise that was neatly explained by the curator, Susan Davidson, late in a recent walkthrough of the exhibition. Asked about some of the more esoteric details of the life of her subject, she demurred, saying she was not a Motherwell scholar, rather that the early collages had intrigued her visually. And it is an aesthetic experience to have them all assembled, some building on each other and others completely alien to anything else he had created.
In 1943, Motherwell took up collage, at the suggestion of Peggy Guggenheim, who was one of his mentors in the city along with Meyer Schapiro, his professor at Columbia, and the Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta. Guggenheim planned to have a show of the cut-paper works of several internationally known artists and also invited William Baziotes and Jackson Pollock to try the medium — new to all of them — and, if they liked the results, to display them with the more established masters.
According to Ms. Davidson, the artists were intimidated by the challenge. Baziotes resigned himself to his studio, working alone. In contrast, Pollock and Motherwell worked together at separate tables in Pollock’s studio. (Pollock moved to a house in Springs in 1945, the same year Motherwell bought his property in East Hampton.)
All three came up with work they decided to show at Art of this Century, Guggenheim’s gallery. Both Baziotes and Motherwell’s work sold. Pollock’s did not.
Motherwell described his experience with collage as “making beautiful love for the very first time,” Ms. Davidson said. In contrast, Pollock found little use for it.
“Joy of Living,” along with an untitled work from the same year, were created in Pollock’s studio and are in the show. They are some of the earliest works, exhibited along with two drawings from 1941, to provide some context of the artist’s development prior to this event. The collages are mixtures of ink, gouache, oil, crayon, pastel, graphite, and pasted Japanese paper, colored paper, construction paper, a printed map, and fabric on paperboard.
The first works served as a template for those to come. Motherwell often used a variety of materials and would transfer his collaged ideas to paintings or drawings and vice versa. Several drawings in the show bear this out. One does not need prodding to recognize the orbs that populated his paintings for years to come when they show up in his 1943 works in both collage and drawing. But they are there too to document how prevalent they already were in the artist’s work.
Ms. Davidson pointed out the fullest expression of this in “The Pink Mirror,” a collage from 1946 that adopts the exact ovoid shape that would become a mainstay of the “Elegy” series, and which the artist described as inspired by the “display of the dead bull’s testicles in the Spanish bullfighting ring,” according to a Museum of Modern Art catalogue on highlights from its permanent collection.
He obviously liked to recycle themes and visual motifs from work to work. This becomes evident in several works made from 1943 to 1948 using fragments of five sheets of German wrapping paper. The paper, which cost him $1.50, shows up in his work for the next couple of years. He became so attached to it that when he ran out, said Ms. Davidson, he actually hand-painted similar designs on paper to mimic it in a few later works.
The Guggenheim show provides such a full understanding of the influences on Motherwell at a pivotal time in his development that it could rest on its laurels for that alone. Yet it is compelling visually as well. It was not surprising to discover that his collaged works sold better and for more money than his oil paintings at his first solo show at Art of this Century in 1944. Interestingly, Clement Greenberg noted in his critique of the show, quoted in Ms. Davidson’s essay, that the artist needed to “stop watching himself, let him stop thinking instead of painting himself through.”
As the decade continued, Motherwell joined fellow artists in their own school, The Subjects of the Artist. Around the same time, his crossover into the realm of what would become Abstract Expressionism became more apparent even in his collages, as he became more “violent with his materials, tearing rather cutting,” in Ms. Davidson’s words, the paper that he used in later works such as 1949’s “Collage in Yellow and White, with Torn Elements.” In an exhibition essay, Brandon Taylor notes the rough edges in his “Elegy” series and traces them to this moment.
The show ends in 1951, the year Motherwell left the South Fork but also the year he fully embraced what would become his mature style. Ms. Davidson observed that collage allowed him to find his identity.
While Pollock’s radical breakthrough happened apart from the medium, Motherwell later termed his own collages as his “first real Abstract Expressionist works,” and they allowed him to become one of the pre-eminent practitioners of the style he helped disseminate.
Rather than the ponderous paintings to come, these works still have a fresh experimentation and a hint of vigor within his more rigid and ubiquitous theoretical constructs. As such, they seem far more intuitive and remarkable: the anticipation of the destination more engaging than the arrival.
The exhibition will remain on view through Jan. 6.