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    Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)
    Nemesis, 1981-82
    Acrylic on canvas
    60 x 44 inches (152.4 x 111.8 cm)
    Signed and dated on the reverse: R. Motherwell / 1982

    The artist's studio number: P81-2666

    Private collection, New York, 1984;
    Private collection, New York;
    M. Knoedler & Co., New York (label verso).

    Phoenix II Gallery, Washington, D.C., "Twenty-Five Artists," December 22, 1982-January 1983;
    Museum Morsbroich, Leverkusen, Germany, "Motherwell," October 17, 2004-January 30, 2005.

    Alene Bujesi,Twenty-Five Artists, University Publications of America, 1982, p. 86, illustrated in color;
    Museum Morsbroich, Motherwell, Leverkusen, Germany, 2004, p. 115, illustrated in color;
    Ralf Stiftel, "Stürmisches Schwarz," Westfälischer Anzeiger, December 21, 2004, p. 298, illustrated;
    Jack Flam, Katy Rogers, and Tim Clifford, Robert Motherwell Paintings and Collages, A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991, Volume Two: Paintings on Canvas and Panel, The Dedalus Foundation, Inc., and Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2012, cat. no. P1039, p. 504, illustrated in color.

    "I think as painter. In paint." Robert Motherwell wrote in 1974. "When I use black, I don't use it the way most people think of it, as the ultimate tone of darkness, but as much a color as white or vermillion, or lemon yellow or purple."

    Motherwell's striking, confrontational canvas, Nemesis, 1981-82, bears witness to his long relationship with both the color black and gestural drawing while, at the same time, revealing how complex that relationship was. If we associate a recurring use of black with reticence or sobriety, Nemesis makes it plain that we must think again. The explosive, over-scaled, but controlled gesture that serves as the protagonist of the painting's visual drama is neither reticent nor sober. If anything, the expansive configuration could be read as a direct equivalent for the sensual, perhaps an embodiment of the Dionysian side of Motherwell, a man who reveled in fine wine and food, and whose collages were constructed with the detritus of parcels of books sent from France or the wrappers of imported cigarettes. The brash, irregular, nameless shape that faces us in Nemesis provokes numerous associations but remains resolutely abstract. Yet it can also seem to have an overtone of menace - a quality that probably provoked the picture's title, which was certainly attached after the fact. For all the seductive beauty and economy of its image, Nemesis threatens to resolve itself as something possibly dangerous, something we might recognize, but never do; it's like a name that we struggle to remember but fail to call up.

    Black, not as the absence of color, but as a significant hue in its own right, was always part of Motherwell's expressive arsenal, from the late 1940s until the end of his life. (The youngest of the Abstract Expressionists, with whom he was closely associated, he was born in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1915, and died in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 1991.) An entire exhibition, "Robert Motherwell & Black," organized in 1979 by the William Benton Museum of Art, University of Connecticut, was devoted to his continuing preoccupation with the hue. Motherwell's black is as varied as any chromatic color. It can be matte and opaque, brushy and transparent, or velvety and inflected. It conjures up everything from the rich, somber garments of Diego Velázquez's nobles to the way Henri Matisse evoked dazzling light in his sun filled interiors, reminding us of Motherwell's deep knowledge of the history of art and of his life-long enthusiasm for Spanish art and French culture. The use of black often seems inextricably connected with drawing and here, too, that association resonates within Motherwell's oeuvre; generously scaled calligraphy, usually in emphatic black, recurs as an important element throughout his work in a seamless fusion of gesture and what the artist makes us regard not as a function of a particular medium, such as ink or charcoal, but as an independent, richly allusive hue. A wide range of types of drawing at various scales, unignorable evidence of Motherwell's hand, of his distinctive touch in manipulating his materials, is manifest not only in his works on paper and in his prints, but also in his collages, and, perhaps most strikingly, in his canvases.

    Yet even though the unbridled Dionysian energy of the freely painted shape that dominates Nemesis is palpable, we cannot ignore the coexisting, contradictory sense of restraint that results in clearly defined edges and a refined surface. Self-imposed discipline announces itself, too, in Motherwell's palette of black, the pale tone of canvas, and a few notes of rusty brown that seem to have escaped from underneath the looming, dark, gestural mass. It's a deliberately restricted range of what might be termed non-chromatic, earthy colors, yet at the same time, that very restriction is enriched by powerful associations with precedents in Spanish painting; we think of Velázquez's early bodegon paintings of kitchen scenes or Francisco Goya's late portraits of his fellow exiles in France, among many other examples. This suave, held-back aspect of Nemesis could be read as revealing Motherwell's high-minded Apollonian side, as an immensely cultivated, widely read individual with an appreciation of sophisticated elegance, an intellectual who majored in philosophy before dedicating himself to painting. This paradoxical double reading of an abstract image as both passionate and cool has cognates within the artist's own history, perhaps most notably in his most familiar configuration, the well-known chain of ovals and bars in his Elegy to the Spanish Republic paintings and their many variants.. It's worth noting, in this context, that at just about the same time as he was working on Nemesis, Motherwell was producing a series of black and white prints that ring changes on the Elegy configuration; in these, a thick, cursive stroke that is part of the "chain," has ends projecting upward like the two unequal thrusts of the Nemesis image; it seems related, albeit peripherally, to the bold gestural shape in the painting.

    Yet ultimately, it is Motherwell's masterly deployment of his materials that makes Nemesis so compelling, the unphotographable nuances of surface, the evidence of both vigorous and delicate paint application, subtleties of color, and more. The longer we spend with the painting, the more the large shape begins to reveal the history of its making, as a series of full-arm strokes, applied to the canvas with enough force to spatter and sufficiently individual to create a shape with incidents of relative transparency. We are increasingly aware that the dark configuration before us, handsomely adjusted to the rectangle of the canvas, is not a single mass, but rather an accumulation of sweeps and swipes that all-but obliterate the almost congruent rusty brown shape beneath it. Instead of reading as drawing on a flat surface, the image in Nemesis becomes slightly unstable, contingent, and animated. Motherwell encouraged this reading by "haloing" parts of the shape with a pale tone that almost matches the color of the canvas but is noticeably smoother. The result to is suggest that the thrusting shape floats free of its support, seeming to hover an infinitesimal distance above the literal surface of the canvas, before taking its place, once again, as a declarative but extremely subtle graphic image - a burst of black delicately shifting black.

    "Black is in the artist's mind:" Motherwell said. "If he thinks of it as tone with his whole body, it comes out as tone. If he thinks of it as a color with his whole body, it comes out as color." Nemesis leaves no doubt as to how its author thought of the hue that he returned to, over and over again, throughout his long and distinguished life as a painter.

    - Karen Wilkin

    More information about Robert Motherwell, also known as Motherwell, Robert, Motherwell, Robert Burns, Robert Motherwell.

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    Auction Dates
    May, 2017
    22nd Monday
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