Robert Motherwell: Early Paintings | Enormity of the Possible

PAUL KASMIN GALLERY | SEPTEMBER 7 – OCTOBER 28, 2017

Installation view of Robert Motherwell: Early Paintings
Photo by: Diego Flores / Paul Kasmin Gallery © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./ Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Not far apart, about two minutes or a bit more by foot, depending on what friends you see along the way, are the two present exhibitions at Paul Kasmin Gallery, at 293 and 297 Tenth Avenue.

Spanning the 1940s and 1950s, Robert Motherwell: Early Paintings means to investigate Motherwell’s “ever-oscillating positions between representation and abstraction; automatism and predetermination; and object versus image.” What really fascinated me were the interrelations brought up by these works, still so present in the minds of anyone who spoke at length with Motherwell about his readings (vast) and memories of other works, both visual and literary. Look at The Dark Lady of 1947/85, dated c. 1968 on the verso: we know how he was haunted by Shakespeare and the address of the sonnets, thus the possible depth of this viewing and the bright—to contrast with the thinking of dark, we can imagine—splotches at the top. And take his Three Figures of 1941, never on public view before, with its crossed-out inscription: El Miedo de la Oscuridad / The Fear of Darkness, before which I couldn’t help remembering Picasso’s Three Dancers of 1925. So many branchings out! The Untitled (Orange, Brown) of c. 1951 with direct reference to Rembrandt’s Flayed Ox and Soutine’s recall of it is yet another. Motherwell is great at recalls… 

Installation view of Robert Motherwell: Early Paintings
Photo by: Diego Flores / Paul Kasmin Gallery © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./ Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Perhaps of all the striking relations leaping to mind is an untitled work of 1950 where you feel the vertical bars of The Spanish Prison (Window) of 1943–44, and the Elegies all at once.

Some will wonder about the use of “enormity,” and how it usually attaches to something negative, but in The Enormity of the Possible, it is certainly the opposite case. How could the possible ever be anything but very, very big? And this exhibition is not to be believed: John Marin (one of my—and many persons’—favor- ite) appears on the cover of the catalogue with his Movement VI of 1946. You would love to abscond with it under your sleeve. I didn’t do that, but just stood in happiness before this work and two others, the Sea and Boat Fantasy (1944) with the icons on the top bar, and the more complicated Movement: Sea Played with Boat Motive (1947). 

Installation view of Robert Motherwell: Early Paintings
Photo by: Diego Flores / Paul Kasmin Gallery © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./ Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

As happens with almost every work here—the Milton Averys in their spaciousness and clarity, the Rothko of 1932 (!), the Pollock (!), and the very grand Lee Krasner’s very grand Seated Figure of 1938–39, an oil and collage on linen—oh my goodness! Also, let me single out three Stuart Davis works, the Black and White Variation on “Pochade” (1956–58)—right there when you come in, so remarkably recognizable straight off—and the bright, bright Standard Brand No. 2 of 1960–61, with its pencil traces, and the totally gorgeous Open Book and Fruit of 1922, which does its legibility and outpouring and gustatory enjoyment for all of us, so early! Like a wakeup to end this piece with earliness.

Contributor

Mary Ann Caws

MARY ANN CAWS is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in twentieth-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.

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