Encounters with the Unknown in a Catalogue Raisonné Project
My first encounter with Robert Motherwell was far removed, unfolding in art history textbooks and lecture halls. An “Elegy” blown up and projected in a darkened room, black bulbous forms momentarily transferred onto a wall. The same “Elegy” scaled down to a flashcard for exams.
My second encounter was more prolonged and intimate. As a researcher for the catalogue raisonné of Motherwell’s drawings, I investigate the often-tangled public life of his works. This task entails sketching out the contours of all known exhibitions and any published reference to the artist and his world. Like the first, this encounter is secondhand and constructed through others, but it is deep and demands an attentiveness to the shifting reception of Motherwell’s prolific career (never a static task, it continues to evolve decades after his death). How can we observe Motherwell’s reworking of his canvases (and titles) through their exhibition history? How did critics understand his early work, before signifiers like “Irascible,” “New York School,” and “Abstract Expressionism” cohered around Motherwell and his contemporaries? My colleagues and I were enmeshed in these questions (and more, so many more questions), as we delved into the pleasures (and frustrations) of research. Some of these answers could be found in our own archives, Motherwell’s datebooks, or his correspondence with curators or collectors. Others were found elsewhere—an installation photo in the Helen Frankenthaler Archives, or an exhibition review from 1940, published in a newspaper from Eugene, Oregon. We reconstruct a life full of starts and stops, triumphs, frustrations, public disagreements with fellow artists and critics, and ask how these moments add to our understanding of modern art. For Motherwell’s friend and mentor, the Austrian-born artist and thinker Wolfgang Paalen, modern art was an urgent and necessary project: he wrote in 1942 that it was “a vital stimulus to imagination” and “an invaluable weapon in the struggle for freedom.”
Paalen worked through this understanding of modern art in the pages of DYN, an ambitious but short-lived magazine he produced and published in Mexico City between 1942 to 1944, and to which Motherwell contributed one of his most important early essays, “The Modern Painter’s World” (1944). It is in the Fall 1942 issue of DYN that we encounter a Motherwell drawing, Étude d’espace. It is known to us only through a reproduction nestled within the pages of the magazine. The drawing contains fields of varying shades of purples, interrupted by yellow and green forms. These washes of color reflect the continued presence of Mexico in his work, emphasizing the hold his recent stay there had on him. He recalls the vibrant palette of local Mexican art and objects: “magenta, bright lemon yellow, lime green, indigo, vermillion, orange, shocking pink, deep ultramarine blue, black and white, and purple, lots of purple… [and] beautiful intense greens.”
As with other drawings produced during this early period, Motherwell was deeply inspired by Joan Miró, and in Étude d’espace, Motherwell experiments with Miró’s pictorial language of brushy, amorphous passages of color, radiating lines, and floating, saturated forms. A tension unfolds between the flattened shapes that push up against the work’s surface and the connective black threads that invite us to see the forms coming together like an intricately assembled constellation within the tight composition. It’s not hard to imagine the assembly of forms in motion, breaking out of the frame in multidimensional flight. This sense of movement was enhanced by a small sketch of a mobile by Alexander Calder that was reproduced right below Étude d’espace in the same issue of DYN.
Despite this clear network of references, many details about this drawing raise unanswerable questions. It is most likely gouache and ink on paper, but we can’t say for certain. Was it dedicated to Paalen or someone else in the DYN circle? Does it still exist in the form illustrated in the magazine? Was Étude d’espace meant as a descriptive caption, rather than a formal title for the work? Even its dimensions, one of the most basic elements of any object, are unknown. For researchers, the drawing is an exercise in humility. Our job is to know all the crevices of Motherwell’s life and work, and to make them legible to a range of audiences. Here we encounter a never-ending list of unanswered questions surrounding the circumstances of the work. We sit with the unknown, in anticipation and hope of a future encounter that may bring us closer to understanding more about this drawing.
In the first issue of DYN, Motherwell translated from French into English a text by Wolfgang Paalen titled “The New Image.” Paalen’s words come to us through Motherwell: “The possible does not have to be justified by the known.”