DescriptionRobert Motherwell (1915-1991)
Untitled (Ochre with Black Line), 1972-73/1974
Acrylic and charcoal on canvas
55-3/4 x 74 inches (141.6 x 188.0 cm)
Signed and dated upper right: Motherwell / 73
Knoedler & Company, New York, acquired from the above, 1974;
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 1974.
Tibor de Nagy Gallery, Houston, Texas (shown in early state);
Laguna Gloria Art Museum, Austin, Texas, 1975.
J. Flam, K. Rogers, and T. Clifford, Robert Motherwell Paintings and Collages, A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012, no. P766, vol. 2, p. 379.
Robert Motherwell -- a writer, editor, and professor -- was the youngest of the protagonists in the epic tale of the Abstract Expressionist movement in New York in the 1940s and 1950s, yet he would become one of its most eloquent theoreticians and create one of its most indelible archetypal compositions with his deeply moving and free-spirited Open series. Untitled (Ochre with Black Line) is a tour de force from this epic sequence. With many Opens in public collections, the offering of Untitled (Ochre with Black Line) is a special event.
In the winter of 1967, Motherwell was continuing to flesh out his Elegy to the Spanish Republic series, bold canvases of black ovoid and phallic shapes on a white ground which served as meditations on anguish and death. One afternoon, a chance occurrence in his New York studio suddenly changed the course of his artistic direction for the rest of his career. His biographer H.H. Arnason describes this watershed moment:
"Preparing a large vertical canvas, he painted the entire surface in yellow ochre and then left it for a while. In moving some other paintings, he leaned a small canvas from the Summertime in Italy series against the large one and discovered that he liked the spatial relationship of the small against the large rectangle. As a result, he outlined the small painting in charcoal on the larger ochre ground, the effect suggesting an opening or door. At first he intended to introduce some free figuration, either within the "door" or around it. Then he found the simple solution so satisfactory that for a time he did nothing further with it, and even signed it with his initials and dated it. After more study, he decided that he liked it better in reverse, with the small rectangle descending from the top. This was to be the final solution . . . and it became the first of the Open series" (H.H. Arnason, Robert Motherwell, New York, 1983, p. 70) (Open No. 1: In Yellow Ochre, Private collection).
From 1967 to 1974, the most productive period of his career, Motherwell worked tirelessly on these canvases of color fields with U-shaped rectangles, what he would officially name the Opens in their public debut at New York's Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in 1969. The Opens differed dramatically from the preceding Elegies to the Spanish Republic: they centered around the concept of deconstruction, or employing lines to break apart a unified canvas, rather than building up a canvas from separate parts; they featured a wide range of colors, like yellow ochre, vermilion, orange, cadmium green, and ultramarine blue, rather than a limited palette of black and white; and they celebrated themes of openness, freedom, and possibility over anxiety, conflict, and despair. One of the possibilities of the Opens was their unlimited variation. Early Opens such as Open No. 17: In Ultramarine with Charcoal Line (Museum of Modern Art, New York), depict a solid acrylic color field punctuated by the outline of a rectangle, often drawn with charcoal, whose fourth side is the upper edge of the canvas. Other Opens, for example Open No. 37: In Orange with Charcoal Line (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), feature three sides of the rectangle which are irregular in length or which extend only partially toward the upper canvas edge. Some Opens, such as Open No. 82: The Blue Easel (Denver Art Museum), fill in the rectangle with color or demarcate the field with bands of color. Open color fields range from smoothly painted and monochromatic to wildly gestural, with visible layers of under-paint. Later Opens surprise with blurred or bent rectangle sides (Open in Ochre, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), multiple rectangles (Open No. 97: The Spanish House, Dedalus Foundation), and lines, smudges, or shapes outside of the central rectangle (Open No. 125: Jeannie, Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London).
Despite their intentional variety, the Opens share the concept of the canvas functioning simultaneously as "window" and "wall." On the one hand, Motherwell nods to traditional representational painting by using the rectangle on a flat ground to suggest a "window onto the world beyond." Indeed, many of the Open titles reference windows and walls -- Mexican Window, The Spanish House, Ochre with Black Window, The Blue Wall, In Vermillion and Black with Sienna Window, Big Blue with Green Window, and The Garden Window - and he even wrote about the impact of this window-wall motif on his painting:
"And in real life, I would rather spend time looking at nature that has been modified by man - at parks or town squares and wall, say - than at raw nature or wilderness. The Open series was generated in part by these feelings. In Mexico, in the old days, they built the four walls of a house solid, without windows or doors, and later cut some windows and doors beautifully proportioned, out of the solid adobe wall. There is something in me that responds to the stark beauty of dividing a flat solid plane" (J. Flam et. al., Motherwell, New York, 1991, p. 9).
On the other hand, by underscoring the spatial ambiguity of the rectangle-window to the color field-wall - which one is foreground, and which one is background? - he asserts the very flatness of the canvas, a nod to modernist painting. The rectangle with an open edge may suggest movement beyond the canvas, but it is equally closed off, opening onto nothing but itself. The Opens thus offer complex dualities of surface-depth, inside-outside, illusion-abstraction, and expansion-confinement.
Educated at Stanford and Harvard universities, Motherwell drew upon a wide range of art historical and literary references for the Open series. Formally, the Opens recall two abstracted paintings by Henri Matisse from 1914, Porte-fenêtre à Collioure (Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris) and View of Notre Dame (Museum of Modern Art, New York), exhibited for the first time at MoMA in 1966, which spurred Motherwell to consider the relationship between the window and the wall and between the drawn line and the painted color field. Piet Mondrian's grid paintings, which Motherwell critiqued in several essays, offered him examples of animated brushwork within the rectangle, and Joan Miró's and Mark Rothko's color field paintings, examples of the expressive, psychological power of broadly brushed color. Conceptually, in acknowledging the necessity of an open space or "void" (the color field) in order to animate a subject (the rectangle), the Opens borrowed from three major influences: Japanese Zen painting, where elegant black ink lines are applied intuitively to a white sheet of paper; the French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who described the random sprinkling of words - an open-ended poem -- on the emptiness of the white page; and the German philosopher Martin Heidegger who, in his 1950 "The Origin of the Work of Art," noted that spaciousness is a required condition for creation.
During the late 1960s and early '70s when Motherwell was exploring the Opens, it was Minimalism, championed by the likes of Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Ad Reinhardt, and Tony Smith, which dominated the New York art scene. Yet Motherwell rejected the hard-edged, mechanical, and impersonal formula of Minimalism in favor of an art form that welcomed spontaneity and discovery and evoked emotions. "[The Opens] are made empirically, with many brush strokes and often corrections," he insisted, "not in relation to some pre-determined geometry of mathematical concept, but in terms of feelings. Despite their simplicity of iconography, . . . these paintings are filled with humanistic feeling and a certain tension between austerity and sensuality. In short, they have nothing to do with minimal art" (R. Motherwell, press release for "Robert Motherwell: Open Series, 1967-1969," Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, May 13-June 7, 1969). Indeed, to encounter an Open, with its pulsing colors and dynamic brushwork, was to engage in a self-reflective experience, heightened by Motherwell's insistence that the paintings be exhibited under low light so that "they become objectless and mysterious . . . not hard-edge paintings, but romantic ones - essences" (R. Motherwell to Ronald Alley, October 15, 1970).
In May of 1969, after months of preparation and deliberation, Motherwell was finally ready to exhibit the Opens publicly at his gallery, Malborough-Gerson. He involved himself in every aspect of the show, from selecting thirty-seven examples for the catalogue and fourteen for display in the gallery, conceiving of the name "Opens" for the series, and writing the press release. "Robert Motherwell: Open Series, 1967-1969" ran from May 13-June 7 and garnered uniformly rave reviews. Critic John Gruen commented, "The application of paint is always charged with an understated emotional force, and the works - in beautiful blues, yellows, oranges, etc. - make manifest a quiet and absorbing interplay of unending poetic space" (J. Flam et al., Robert Motherwell: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991, Volume I, New Haven, Connecticut, p. 137-38). The New York Times' Hilton Kramer wrote, "This sense of [art historical] continuity is, perhaps, the easiest thing to overlook in these new works, but I think it is fundamental to their conception. I can think of few exhibitions, in any case, that reaffirm the strengths of abstract painting to quite the same degree" (Ibid., p. 138). And Artforum's Rosalind Kraus concluded, "Like Miró's art, Motherwell's own has been a continuous investigation into the nature of signs - both examining and displaying their openness, their directness of address, and the way they can embody the conventions which are at the heart of painting" (Ibid., p. 138).
During the early 1970s, following this landmark exhibition, Motherwell delved into the Opens with a new intensity, despite, or perhaps because of, major life events. In February 1970, one of his closest friends, Mark Rothko, committed suicide. In 1971, Motherwell and fellow artist Helen Frankenthaler divorced, and in 1972, he married his fourth wife, the German photographer Renate Ponsold. This same year, he also happily broke ties with the Malborough-Gerson Gallery and adopted Lawrence Rubin as his dealer, showing first at his eponymous gallery and, beginning in 1974, at Knoedler & Company.
The present example, Motherwell's extraordinary Untitled (Ochre with Black Line), which he began in 1972-3 and reworked in 1974, must be seen in light of these personal changes because it celebrates not merely the concept of openness, but the very action of change. Here, a velvety black rectangle floats upon a vibrant ochre field accented by "smudges" of black wash. Motherwell effects sensations of movement in multiple ways: by applying the yellow paint in broad swirling motions; by painting freehand the sides of the rectangle so that they undulate; and by adding vigorous grey-black brushwork - actively dripping in spots -- around the rectangle, further enlivening it. Such formal details connote change, but, more interesting, the canvas literally metamorphosed over time: in early 1974, Motherwell exhibited the painting, which he had "completed" in 1973, as Untitled (Ochre with Black Line) at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in Houston; when he received it back in his studio several months later, he filled in the original open, charcoal-line rectangle with thick black paint before selling it to Knoedler & Company, from whom the current owners purchased it that same year.
Untitled (Ochre with Black Line) also signifies change in that it is the dramatic culmination of a series of ochre canvases that Motherwell painted between 1972-73. Experimenting with one of his favorite colors, ochre, which reminded him of the hills of his native California, he first produced In Black and Tan (Collection of Ricardo Cisneros) and Ochre with Black Window (Cincinnati Art Museum), which revisit one of his early tropes of the solid black rectangle on a monochromatic field; next Yellow Wall (Private collection) and The Pale Wall (Private collection), which highlight a white rectangle, demarcated by shaky black lines, upon a yellow ground; and finally the quasi-representational Mexican Window (Collection of Mildred and Herbert Lee) and Untitled (Open Grey on Ochre), which transform rectangle edges into slatted window shutters. Like this preceding painting, Untitled (Ochre with Black Line) features a grey-black wash "dancing" around the rectangle. Yet more than any of the ochre works from this period, Untitled (Ochre with Black Line), in its particular combination of the solid black rectangle with the surrounding smudged brushwork and the pulsing yellow field, presents new dichotomies, not simply between inside-outside, but between opaque-luminous, flat-textural, dense-ethereal, structural-calligraphic, and concentrated-expansive.
Luscious, vibrating, and energizing, Untitled (Ochre with Black Line), like all the Opens, invites viewers to "make an imaginative leap inside the picture so that the space encloses them. . . . When they look at the Opens, they introspectively gaze inward at themselves. Although they are outside the work, they are immersed in it and consequently co-exist with the flux of energy that radiates both outwards and inwards. This state resembles the awareness of Zen in which one does not inhabit and enclose one's being as a separate entity, rather one radiates a field of being" (R. Hobbs, "Motherwell's Opens: Heidegger, Mallarme, and Zen," in R. Delaney, Robert Motherwell: Open, London, 2009, p. 68).
Now it's your turn to leap in and be opened.
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