DescriptionRobert Motherwell (1915-1991)
Cor Anglais, 1976
Acrylic and pasted papers on paper
22 x 15 inches (55.9 x 38.1 cm)
Initialed and dated lower left: RM / 11 Feb 76
This collage takes its title from the sheet music fragment, which reads "Cor Anglais" (English Horn). The sheet music is from Beethoven's Trio for two oboes and English horn, op. 87.
Private collection, New York;
Private collection, New York.
Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, New Jersey, "Robert Motherwell: The Music Collages," November 19, 1989-January 7, 1990.
Montclair Art Museum, Robert Motherwell: The Music Collages, Montclair, New Jersey, 1989, cover, illustrated in color;
Jack Flam, Katy Rogers, and Tim Clifford, Robert Motherwell Paintings and Collages, A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991, Volume Three: Collages and Paintings on Paper and Paperboard, The Dedalus Foundation, Inc., and Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2012, cat. no. C556, p. 265, illustrated in color.
Motherwell's singlehanded revitalization and advancement of collage through the uncompromising excellence of his work is among the most significant achievements in modernist art. History is a long continuum, with frame or effect depending upon one's entrance point into any given sequence: genius is the ability not only to maintain what had come, but to change and shape one's own time, and to offer a succeeding spirit of both (E.A. Carmean, The Collages of Robert Motherwell: A Retrospective Exhibition, 1973, p. 39).
In 1943 the incomparable modernist art dealer Peggy Guggenheim invited three young Abstract Expressionists, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and William Baziotes, to contribute collages to her upcoming Exhibition on Collage. Barely established as an artist, Motherwell had never experimented with the medium, yet sparked by the challenge, he met at Pollock's studio and produced Pierrot's Hat and Untitled; both works feature a sheet of paper affixed to a board onto which he added a thin grey wash, glued pieces of cut colored paper, and connected these shapes with painted lines. This day in Pollock's studio, what at first seemed like "act[ing] as though we were in kindergarten," became a watershed moment for Motherwell (J. Flam, Robert Motherwell: A Catalogue Raisonne, 1941-1991, Volume I, New Haven, 2012, p. 39). Indeed, more than any other of his peers, he utilized collage throughout his life, both as a medium in and of itself and as a catalyst for his painting, printmaking, writing, and editing. Variously sensuous, painterly, cerebral, edgy, and punning, Motherwell's collages run the gamut: some incorporate everyday objects like wrappers from art supplies or letters and envelopes; others foreground ragged-edged papers, violently ripped after being pasted down; and still others explore a serial aesthetic theme, like red paint combined with cigarette packages (Scarlet with Gauloises) or Japanese rice papers superimposed on a black ground with a black "hole" in the middle of the composition (Night Music). The sophisticated present work, Cor Anglais, belongs to a music series from the mid-1970s, in which he coupled fragments of sheet music with pieces of paper painted with a solid acrylic color. In its composition and particular choice of materials, Cors Anglais not merely acknowledges the artistic influences on Motherwell as a collagist, but also celebrates his own contribution to the medium, which he deemed one of "the greatest of our discoveries" in twentieth-century art (Flam, p. 41).
Collage evolved out of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso's ongoing Cubist quest to assert the simultaneous three-dimensionality and two-dimensionality of the picture plane. Between 1910-12, they were using trompe l'oeil (fool the eye) devices such as a painted tack with cast shadow to create compositional depth, and stenciled letters or sand mixed with paint to emphasize the flatness of the canvas. As the well-told story goes, one day in 1912, Braque spotted in the window of a decorator's supply shop a sheet of faux bois (imitation woodgrain)-patterned wallpaper, which he purchased, cut, and pasted onto a drawing with charcoal. So papier collé-collage made from paper--was born. Around the same time, Picasso made his first collage by gluing to a canvas a piece of oilcloth printed with a chair-caning pattern, then edging the canvas with a heavy rope. Such wildly inventive works, by incorporating everyday, mass-produced objects, symbolized artistic freedom, a rupture from the high art of the past, and the complexity of modern life. In the exhibition catalogue The Synthetic Century, the art historian Elizabeth Hodermarsky points out that Cubist collage was additionally revolutionary because of its accessibility and playfulness, its willingness to pun. She goes on to explain that by mid-century, two collage strains were developing: "the more classical, compositionally balanced collage, with its roots in Cubism" and "a new trend toward décollage-an outgrowth of Dada that revealed itself in an effacement or excavation of a work's surface through a physical burning, tearing, or cutting away" (E. Hodermarsky, The Synthetic Century, New Haven, Connecticut, 2002, p. 22).
Steeped in this tradition of European modernism, Cor Anglais immediately evokes the classical, early Cubist collages of Braque and Picasso. Here, onto a sheet of paper painted with robin's egg blue acrylic, Motherwell has pasted a fragment of sheet music, layered with a black-painted rectangle of paper superimposed with white vertical lines, a green-painted torn piece of paper, and a smaller fragment of sheet music; thin bands of black and green paper in the lower right corner echo the colors and shapes in the central collage. Thematically and compositionally, Cor Anglais recalls Braque's Black and White Collage from 1913, which features lined paper suggesting sheet music, papers tilted at an angle, the drawn outline of a violin, and black paper etched with white chalk lines resembling the strings of a violin. Cors Anglais also references Picasso's Violin and Sheet Music from 1913, with its overlapping rectilinear papers and sheet music and its dominant blue color. All of these works emphasize the interplay between the two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality of the picture plane, as the pasted papers simultaneously flatten space and, through their overlapping, move space forward and backward. These collages also pun using the theme of music: the everyday object of a piece sheet music, as well forms that simulate violins, strings, or, in the case of Cors Anglais, a horn. Motherwell described the whimsy of his Cubist-inspired papiers collés: "[T]he papers in my collages are usually things that are familiar to me, part of my life. . . . Collages are a modern substitute for still life. . . . In collage there [are] a lot of ready-made details. . . . I do feel more joyful with collage, less austere. A form of play. Which painting, in general, is not for me, at least" (Carmean, p. 93).
"Cors Anglais" is French for the English horn, a double-reed woodwind instrument with a tenor sound. Long, skinny, and black, the cors anglais looks similar to the oboe, its soprano counterpart. In Cors Anglais, Motherwell narrows the black rectangle from Braque's Black and White Collage, transforming it into the shape of a cors anglais. He also purposefully selects for the accompanying piece of sheet music Beethoven's Trio for two oboes and English horn, Op. 87, from 1795. Melodic and energetic, Trio, Op. 87 is one of Beethoven's most popular woodwind ensemble pieces; however, it is simultaneously vanguard in that it features an uncommon combination of instruments, and he wrote it not for the Austrian court, but for amateur performers in Vienna. This dual "accessible but cutting edge" spirit permeates Cors Anglais as well, a cheerful composition that pushes boundaries in the medium of collage by accentuating broad color fields. Motherwell also hints at Beethoven's technique here through the black-and-green shapes in the lower right which repeat the colors and shapes in the central composition, much like the exposition repeat of the sonata first movement in Trio, Op. 87. While Motherwell frequently used sheet music from Mozart and Stravinsky scores in his roughly 50 music collages from the 1970s, he highlighted Beethoven's music in only three collages, making Cors Anglais that much more unusual.
Motherwell's collages from this period are indebted to Henri Matisse's cutouts, as much as to Cubism. During the late 1940s when he was infirm and bed-bound, Matisse turned to collage as his preferred medium, cutting brightly painted sheets of paper into organic and abstract forms and arranging them into lively compositions. Motherwell became more attuned to Matisse's masterful colorful sensibility after viewing the 1961 exhibition of his cutouts at MoMA, The Last Works of Henri Matisse: Large Cut Gouaches. He even underlined a Matisse quote from the exhibition catalogue: "I have arrived at the distillation of form. . . of this or that object which I used to present in all its complexity in space, I now keep only the sign which suffices, necessary for its existence in its own form, for the composition as I conceive it." This concept of composition reduced to only essential forms of uniform color is evident in Matisse's small circa 1949 cutout La Danseuse-the body of a dancer suggested by a white floriform shape on a ground of blue, red, and black papers-which Motherwell purchased and used as inspiration for his 1975 collage In Celebration. Here, he repeats Matisse's strong white curvilinear shape, making it pop against vivid red rectangles bordered by bands of blue, black, and tan. Produced only a year after In Celebration, Cors Anglais similarly recalls Matisse's 1953 Memory of Oceania in its bold color-shapes. Motherwell here tips his hat to Matisse through the vibrant blue background color field, the bits of white paper, and the tilted emerald green form. Where Matisse's color-blocked forms suggest island water and vegetation, Motherwell's fragmented color-forms conjure up musical instruments, scores, notes, and even the fragmentary or jazz-like quality of music.
Motherwell's genius in collage lay in his ability to appropriate from the past-Braque's and Picasso's fragmented papers and everyday objects and Matisse's simplified, saturated color-forms-and then push the medium to a new level through the practice of "seriality." Around 1970, after renovating a new studio in Greenwich, Motherwell began "us[ing]the same papers in similar kinds of compositions, creating large groups of collages that were essentially variations on a single theme. In order to highlight the serial, theme-and-variation qualities of his collages, [he] often showed them together in groups" (Flam, p. 145). This "deep dive" into an aesthetic subject had already shaped several of his print series and his most famous painting series, Elegy to the Spanish Republic (1948-58) and the Opens (1967-74). In fact, much like the Opens, which explored the relationship between a rectangle bordering the edge of the canvas and its ground, Motherwell's collages from 1970 on accentuate the dynamism between collaged papers and painted ground. For example, in one of his earliest series, Scarlet with Gauloises, he made 24 collages with a torn light blue Gauloises cigarette wrapper pasted on a red acrylic ground demarcated by thin white vertical lines.
In 1974 Motherwell started concentrating on the theme of music in his collages. His first series of 13 musical works, Cabaret, named after the 1972 film starring Liza Minelli, features a centrally placed assortment of pieces of torn paper, sheet music, tickets, newspaper clippings, and other "cabaret" memorabilia on a white ground accented with vertical lines. Cors Anglais belongs to the more general group of over 70 music collages that he created between 1974-87, which include fragments of classical music scores by Beethoven, Mozart, and Stravinsky. Motherwell did not read music and treated the musical scores as abstract calligraphic forms balanced with the solid-colored torn papers. In these collages, "[he] introduces variations in what can be easily equated to pitch and rhythm, as well as the ornamentation found in the deft improvisations that define musical works that employ figured bass" (Flam, p. 147). Such a slight shift in pitch is evidenced by The Magic Flute, created immediately after Cors Anglais, which reveals a nearly identical composition, but on a grey rather than blue ground. Robert Koenig, the former director of the Montclair Art Museum, which spotlighted Cors Anglais in a 1989 exhibition, poetically summed up the impact of Motherwell's music collages: "[These works], lush, yet austere in the very discrete relationship between notes written on music staves and their architectural settings, are Motherwell's definitive statement to date. Clearly coming from the hand of a master in full control of his medium, they are private, even reticent, but public statements which are eminently suited to grace the walls of many museums and private collections" (Robert Motherwell: The Music Collages, exhibition catalogue, Montclair, New Jersey, 1989, n.p.).
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