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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

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JUNE 2020 Issue
Critics Page

A Correspondence With Motherwell

My initial contact with artists’ writings happened in the beginning stages of learning to paint while keeping a journal of notes and drawings in the process. I was in my early 20s and living in Santa Barbara, California. It was the 1970s and I recall seeing an exhibition at LACMA where two large paintings from Robert Motherwell’s “Open” series (circa 1969–70) were on display. I was deeply moved by these works and decided to write the artist a letter. Upon completion, there was the question as to where to send it. Being cognizant of the fact that the poet Frank O’Hara had been the curator of Motherwell’s exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art some years earlier, I decided to send my letter to MoMA in care of Frank O’Hara.

A week later a hand-written letter arrived from Motherwell, thanking me for my comments on his work and inviting me to come to New York to meet him. I immediately purchased a used car for $250, then contacted a friend in Brooklyn to confirm that my companion and I (and my dog) would be able to sleep on his front room floor. The following day we set off from Santa Barbara to begin our drive across the country.

We managed to arrive at the Brooklyn Bridge eight days later. It was 8:30 in the morning. I called Motherwell on a pay phone and let him know we had arrived. His wife, the artist Helen Frankenthaler, answered the phone in a pleasant voice, then called her husband “Bob” to the phone. “We’ve been expecting you,” he said. We spoke briefly before arranging to meet at their home on the Upper East Side the next morning at 11.

During our lengthy conversation, I discovered much about Motherwell I did not know. In addition to being a painter, he was a scholar, an editor, and a writer. What intrigued me about his point of view as a writer was his dual commitment to writing letters on a consistent basis and his ability to work in relation to scholarly research as shown in his well-known classic, The Dada Painters and Poets (1951). Secondly, despite his ongoing allegiance to Abstract Expressionism, my impression was that he functioned as a painter with a highly independent mind. His historically romantic orientation was closer to artists from southern Europe—Spain, in particular—than to anything conceivably American. He may have been “The Homely Protestant” by chance only. 1

Nevertheless, when Motherwell wrote about aspects of his own work or on the work of other artists he admired, he made an all-out effort to avoid academic language and superfluous editing. He wanted his voice to be apparent, that he might be heard directly in relation to his experience. I find a certain resemblance between Motherwell and the writings of the French critic Max Jacob or even Apollinaire, who sought to make their experiences credible through a discreet use of linguistic constraints. In each case, their writings contain a credibility wherein the texture of the language gives the presence of the painting under discussion a persistently heightened effect.

In addition to reviews, essays, and interviews, Motherwell was a great correspondent and would often employ written letters as a means to argue a position. His two letters on Surrealism (1978 and 1979) sent to Edward Henning, Chief Curator of Modern Art, at the Cleveland Museum of Art, are a clear example. While the issues addressed in these letters would in most cases deserve a major essay, Motherwell was content to keep them in the lesser context of a correspondence. A clear example would be his letter to Henning, dated 18 October 1978, that begins: “What I’m going to say is … something that is as complicated and subtle as Proust’s novel and, to be truthful, ought to be written with as many subordinate, qualifying clauses.”2

Numerous other letters are replete with this sort of collegial candor, written with magnificent ease and subtle prowess. This could easily become a major research project unto itself, but is not the point of the current project. Rather I would like to suggest by way of Motherwell that whatever we do as “artist writers,” the source of our writing will most likely depend on a desire to communicate, that is to present what we know both honestly and pervasively. Carefully conceived writing is an important manifestation of how artists think whether inside or outside the medium they normally work. To incite a critical edge in this process through a sense of well-being is what opens the dialogue.

  1. Motherwell titled his 1948 painting The Homely Protestant (which he later commented was a rough analogue for himself) based on a Surrealist operation that involved picking a phrase at random from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939).
  2. Stephanie Terenzio, ed. The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, Oxford, 1992; pp. 228–229.

Contributor

Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is an art critic, historian, and painter. He is Professor Emeritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and currently teaches at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Morgan is the author of Conceptual Art: An American Perspective (McFarland, 1994) and Art into Ideas: Essays on Conceptual Art (Cambridge, 1996). He served as co-curator (with Hyun Soojung) for the exhibition, Robert Barry, Not Personal, Gallery Shilla, Republic of Korea, 2018.

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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

All Issues