Robert Motherwell is known as one of the most important and influential artists of the 20th century. In 1940, as a promising young painter, he moved from California to New York City, joined a group of artists (including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko) and set out to change the face of American art. The artists renounced the prevalent American style, believing Realism depicted only the surface of American life. Motherwell was a key figure in the group to establish America’s first major original art style: Abstract Expressionism, or what he called the New York School, a movement that would place New York at the center of the international art world.
Strongly influenced by the European Surrealists, many of whom had emigrated to New York during World War II, the Abstract Expressionists sought to create essential images that revealed emotional truth and authenticity of feeling through the removal of the inessentials and showing only what was necessary.
Motherwell who was a fervent admirer of Matisse became a colorist seeking out earthy ochres, brilliant yellows and oranges, blues and violets. He also adopted the Matissian technique of collage, the most radical form of drawing developed in the twentieth century.
Motherwell’s collage works were not simply aesthetically pleasing forms and colors, but related to the world in some way. In his collages, he took a personal, lyrical approach, combining fragments of colored paper, labels, letters and stamps in evocative compositions. Incorporating material from his studio such as cigarette packets and labels, the works ultimately became records of his daily life.
This week’s Work of the Week! WOW! is Harvest with Blue Bottom, from the Summer Light series, in which Motherwell created elegantly playful collages.
The Summer of Light series was made up of some of the most elaborate print-work that Motherwell produced during his career. Each piece was realized using lithography, collage and hand-ripping of different types of paper.
Continuing a tradition established by Picasso and Braque of incorporating the detritus of daily life and its simple pleasures, the Summer Light series from 1973 integrates two of Motherwell’s favorite pastimes– drinking and smoking.
The title of this image, Harvest with Blue Bottom, derives from the collaged element of the Ernte 23 cigarette label. “Ernte” is the German translation for harvest. The Summer Light series features six images of the Ernte 23 label and four of Château Latour wine labels. Practically, these materials were laying about his studio and were immediate and on hand, but invariably they were autobiographical, serving as a kind of documentation of his daily life and habits.
Although he is by no means an ”autobiographical” artist, it’s in his collages that fragments of his life reveal themselves. While viewing a collage retrospective of his in the 1970’s, he was
”astounded that, like Proust eating the madeleine, in these abstract compositions all kinds of personal memories would surface that I’d completely forgotten about – not about painting, but about my daily life, my marriage, where I was living at the time, or who I was particularly friendly with and so on. But the autobiography in them wouldn’t be clear to an outside person.”
Beyond autobiographical, the Summer of Light series and all of the artist’s collage work take on the status of the artist’s own diary evoking intimate memories.
Additional work by Robert Motherwell available at the gallery: