PHYLLIS TUCHMAN with Joyce Beckenstein
Art historian and critic Phyllis Tuchman orchestrated an exuberant collection of works, many of them seldom seen, for Robert Motherwell: The East Hampton Years, 1944 –1952 on view at Guild Hall in East Hampton through October 13. Tuchman, who also wrote the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue, recently met with Joyce Beckenstein to discuss Motherwell’s influences; who he, in turn, influenced; and his years in East Hampton.
Joyce Beckenstein (Rail): How did you meet Robert Motherwell?
Phyllis Tuchman: When I was a graduate student at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, I wrote my first term paper on Helen Frankenthaler. We became instant friends. At the time, she was Mrs. Robert Motherwell. Though I called her Helen, it took me a while to get used to calling Mr. Motherwell Bob. During the last years of their marriage, Ernst Gombrich gave a Wrightsman lecture at the Met and spent an evening at the Institute in the seminar with students and no faculty present. Gombrich stressed the importance of doodling to the making of abstract art. When I told Bob about this, he agreed. Helen felt differently. Years later, I interviewed Motherwell for the Mark Rothko oral history.
Rail: In 1985, Motherwell told a New York Times journalist about his days living in East Hampton: “I did my best work during those years,” he said. It’s a feeling about his work that he similarly expressed in a 1944 letter to William Baziotes. You considered that quote important enough to print it on the back cover of your book. How interesting that Motherwell never changed his mind, though his art going forward evolved profoundly, to little resemble those earlier works. Did his lifelong acknowledgement of this period fuel your decision to focus on the years 1944 – 52 for your Guild Hall exhibition and book?
Tuchman: When I wrote the Motherwell entry for the East End stories section of the Parrish Art Museum website, I came across these amazing paintings and the 1985 quote. With few exceptions, work from this period was never included in the artist’s various museum retrospectives. I must add that I am indebted to the three-volume Robert Motherwell catalogue raisonné by Jack Flam, Katy Rogers, and Tim Clifford published by Yale Press in 2012. Without this beautiful set, the exhibition at Guild would have been a different show.
Rail: What led up to the East Hampton Years?
Tuchman: For starters, Motherwell had wonderful mentors. As a graduate student, he studied with Meyer Schapiro at Columbia. Schapiro suggested that he work with Kurt Seligmann, one of the first surrealist émigrés to come to America. Probably the best $450 Motherwell ever spent was the cost of his two weekly classes with Seligmann. Then, too, the young scholar, like all artists starting out in those days, was smitten by the art of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Because of his contacts among the Surrealists, Motherwell was one degree removed from these Modernist titans. Picture this: his colleagues were studying with Ashcan School painters, “sons of Ashcan School painters,” and/or Thomas Hart Benton—not to belittle Benton. That wasn’t like talking to successful European artists who had rubbed shoulders with Picasso and Matisse.
Rail: The “Un-Motherwellian” Motherwell you present in your exhibition reflects those influences. It’s teeming with Picasso-Matisse-Miro-isms that now tell like embryonic markers of his mature works. What specifically did he absorb from those early modernists?
Tuchman: I hope it’s not as obvious as you imply. There’s an oval that’s a leitmotif in paintings from this period. Had Motherwell not noted its derivation from Picasso’s “The Studio” (“L’atelier”) (1928) that Peggy Guggenheim owned, no one would ever make that connection. You mention Picasso, Matisse, and Miro. Piet Mondrian was an important influence from the get go. His studio was just as important to Motherwell as it had been to Alexander Calder. What’s cool is that we know how important Mondrian’s studio was for Calder. Harry Holtzman took him there after Mondrian died. In June 1942, Motherwell published a text on Mondrian’s abstractions in VVV, and more than once, he took the Dutch master dancing. At heart, Motherwell was a Minimalist. The clean, terse character of Mondrian’s work set an example for him. When I think of the difference between Motherwell’s abstractions in the 1940s and Rothko, Newman, and Still at the end of the decade, I think Mondrian’s impact is evident.
Rail: What about Matisse and Picasso?
Tuchman: Because Henri Matisse was the father of the New York-based dealer Pierre Matisse, Motherwell had access to seeing lots of work. “Bathers by a River” (1909 – 17), for example, was at the gallery for many years. You can sense the rhythm and pacing of this work in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago in many Motherwell paintings, such as “The Voyage” (1949),“Granada” (1948 – 49), and the later Elegies to the Spanish Republic. When we think of Matisse, we think of color. Motherwell had a more personal take; he experienced black and white. He later talked about how his selection of color wasn’t arbitrary. For him, colors were rooted in the world of nature. In “In Beige with Sand” (1945), for example, he took the look of sand and water in winter on the East End. He began painting “The Voyage” at night and working non-stop, finished it the next morning. It’s as much about dark and light as it is a panel covered with black and white.
Also, let’s not forget that Motherwell wasn’t inspired by the same Picassos as the ones admired by Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning. The still-life works that influenced them were denser and more complicated. We weren’t able to borrow “Wall Painting with Stripes” from the Art Institute of Chicago because it’s fragile. The oval in the middle of this work survived various states of the painting. Ultimately, it stems from a head in Picasso’s “The Studio.” That shape stayed with him. We also find it in “The Voyage.”
Rail: That takes us to Motherwell’s art process. Here too he differed from his colleagues working extensively with collage—or, papier collés as Motherwell preferred to call them—experimenting with an enormous range of materials. What was the appeal of collage for him?
Tuchman: In the collage show at the Guggenheim last year, you could see how collage and poetry related to one another. Motherwell moved shapes the way poets move and manipulate words. Cut elements offer so many options. He reminded interviewers that a painting was a series of mistakes that could easily be corrected. Motherwell painted and repainted his panels, the way he moved cut-outs.
Rail: That brings us to the many layers bridging the theme of nature with formal aspects of abstraction, and Motherwell’s efforts to integrate them. One would assume his “best years” in the Hamptons had something to do with that locale’s legendary natural environment. But then there was the great quest to distill all reality to pure form. This conundrum found a voice in your Guild Hall panel discussion that made clear how blurry the lines remain between the artist, the work and what the viewer sees. For example, Clifford Ross—Motherwell’s nephew through his marriage to Frankenthaler—referred to a “messiness that connects to nature,” noting that nature fed Motherwell’s ability to accept surprise. Do you agree?
Tuchman: Motherwell took his colors from nature. I remember being in a rowboat with friends in Sag Harbor years ago. My friend Peter scooped up some scallops in a net and we ate them then and there. They could not have been more delicious. Like Proust’s madeleine, this comes back to me every time I look at Mothewell’s “In Beige with Sand.” When you look at the painting, you don’t know if you’re seeing a scallop with an attached muscle or a circle. There’s also some sand. Picasso and Braque used sand, too. Here it references the Hamptons. It’s not just an element appropriated from nature. It’s practically about a way of life, of time, of eating; it’s literally about smelling the flower.
Rail: Jack Flam, who was also on that panel, made connections between Motherwell and Romanticism. He referred to the way Wordsworth reworked his poems—his spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings—much as Motherwell reworked his paintings. What connection do you make between Motherwell and the romantic sensibility?
Tuchman: When I think of the word romantic I think of the verb yearning and I think he yearned.
Rail: I love the way you can elegantly simplify. You do a masterful job at taking the viewer beyond the ubiquitous Elegies and make clear that it is important to view those mature works through the lens of Motherwell’s many influences.
Tuchman: Absolutely. Motherwell made so many Elegies. They’re his best known works, partly because they’re in so many museum collections. I was intrigued when he mentioned to someone years later, “Don’t forget, I made figurative art in the 1940s.” Abstraction means something different today than it did back then. Everyone could see abstraction in figuration. Now they can see the figuration in abstraction.
Rail: There’s such a surprise element in the show and the book. I sense you making new discoveries and re-calculations about Motherwell every time you do a walk-through of your exhibition. Did anything in particular hit you between the eyes as you arranged it?
Tuchman: “The Red Skirt” (1947)! Barbara Haskell promised me it was beautiful. Although it was painted in my lifetime—well, I was a baby—I never saw it on view when the Whitney was on 54th Street or after it moved to the Breuer building. I’m madly in love with it. Its formal elements could not be more compelling. But other material enriches it. When you look at the skirt, you realize it is an abstract picture. You step back and keep in mind as well that his first wife was a Mexican actress. Then, you realize she’s clothed in the kind of garments we associate with Frida Kahlo. Besides that, Motherwell spent time in Mexico. His time there was probably essential to his series of Elegies to the Spanish Republic, where he had never been until the late 1950s.
Rail: Other influences you’d like to talk about?
Tuchman: How about Line Figure In Beige and Mauve (1946)? I don’t think it’s happenstance that the large shape looks like a Greek vase. After all, Motherwell studied with Margarete Bieber at Columbia, studied Greek philosophy at Stanford, and, on at least one occasion during the mid-1940s, used a term in Greek to explain his art.
Rail: I associate Motherwell’s “Pancho Villa, Dead or Alive” (1943) with the theme of war and oppression. But you see a connection to Seurat, don’t you?
Tuchman: “Pancho Villa, Dead or Alive” is outside the parameter of my show; but it is one of the stock works used to illustrate Motherwell during the 1940s. It has vertical stripes that call to mind jail cells as well as those bullet marks. But there are other ways to look at it. A photograph taken in Motherwell’s studio in 1944 is usually cropped when it’s reproduced. The Guggenheim, during the run of the collage show, blew it up. There on his study wall are two Seurats: “Parade” (1887 – 88) and the “Grande Jatte” (1884 – 86). How can you not conclude he reinterpreted the forest of trees as a series of vertical stripes and the pointillist dots as bullet holes?
Rail: We’ve not yet mentioned the Surrealists, including Matta. Why was Motherwell particularly glued to them?
Tuchman: Motherwell was the perfect person for the European Surrealists to adopt. He loved French culture; he’d been to Europe, spoke French and was unique in having gone on the grand tour with his banker father before World War II. During the 1940s, his future American colleagues were more provincial. They were practically groping in the dark; Motherwell was already painting mature works as a young man. Motherwell talked about his despair after his wife left him. No one ever seems to note that he also must have felt abandoned when the Surrealists returned to Europe after the war. That, by the way, is when he threw his fate in with the Americans with whom he would pioneer Abstract Expressionism.
Rail: There’s more to say about these relationships with American Abstract Expressionists but first let’s talk about the enormous impact Motherwell had on other artists, particularly those he taught at Black Mountain College.
Tuchman: When I saw the Rauschenberg collages that came out of Black Mountain at Craig Starr last June, I was astonished. Few people realize that Motherwell, the ultimate collage-maker, was Rauschenberg’s teacher at Black Mountain. When you see his “Poet” (1947) you see the undeniable importance of Motherwell for the early collages of Rauschenberg. Cy Twombly also studied with Motherwell at Black Mountain. Do you know Motherwell’s “Catalonia” (1951) in the St. Louis Art Museum? It’s almost hard to tell whether it’s a Motherwell or an early Twombly.
Rail: Over the years, many people have seen Motherwell as an elitist. Some still say he lived “south of the highway” in the Hamptons, alluding to the prime oceanfront communities that did not in fact exist during the years Motherwell lived and worked in East Hampton. His enormous significance seems to have fallen through some large art-historical cracks. How do you explain this?
Tuchman: Motherwell was the youngest of the Abstract Expressionists. You almost can call him the Julian Schnabel of his day. He was a young Turk who painted, made collages, wrote introductions to a series of books he edited, and produced an art magazine.
Rail: What specifically explains why his reputation began to fade?
Tuchman: Like Rothko and Still, Motherwell was from the Northwest and was well educated. Rothko, who was raised in Oregon after the family left Russia, attended Yale; Still, who was shuttled between Spokane and Canada as a child, had a masters degree from Washington State in Pullman. Motherwell was an artist’s artist. He didn’t hang out at the Cedar Tavern. When would he have had the time? He lived uptown with his wife and three daughters and taught classes at Hunter College. He was lucky he ever got in the studio. Another reason for the marginalization was Motherwell’s fault. When he had input on his retrospectives he did not include this work.
Rail: Where do you see signs of camaraderie between Motherwell and his contemporaries?
Tuchman: I love the story of Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko driving out to East Hampton to see Motherwell. In his eclectic house designed from two salvaged Quonset huts by the French émigré architect Pierre Chareau, the three men hatched the idea for their school in Greenwich Village. Do you know that Barnett Newman came up with the name, Subjects of the Artists? What a shame it was flop and closed after a short time. We forget that Motherwell tried to give back to the community. One of the astonishing things coming out of the Guild Hall show is that you can see how close Motherwell and de Kooning were. The voluptuous “Interior with Pink Nude” (1951) lent by the Kemper in St. Louis was done when de Kooning was working with women and interiors. Sometimes you see drawings and collages by Motherwell with images that look like sculptures David Smith would not make for another eight or ten years. That’s why I said he was an artist’s artist.
Rail: Do you think that knowing about Motherwell’s early works will, going forward, alter perceptions about his contributions to Abstract Expressionism?
Tuchman: I could not be more thrilled that I am contributing to that. As I see it, the show at Guild Hall returns Motherwell to center stage, rescuing him from the wings where he has been languishing. It is astonishing how many people have shown up to see these early works. Last Sunday was a perfect beach day, and football and the U.S. Open tennis finals were on television. Yet 70 people came to Guild Hall for a walk through. Whenever the galleries are open, people sit and watch the video. They seem to be responding to the way, in these paintings and works on paper, a young artist is trying to figure out how to become a “great artist.” They’re responding to his quest to create abstract art in America. They’re responding to the way he is part of the fabric of art history that they either studied in college or heard about in museum lectures. Now they are discovering a score of practically unknown paintings. As it is, “The Homely Protestant” (1948)from the Met and “The Voyage” from MoMA, two masterpieces of post-war art, are rarely on view. You cannot accept what people have said about Motherwell, Abstract Expressionism, and abstract painting until you discover this work for yourself.