Throughout his life, Robert Motherwell had a deep passion for poetry, which informed his aesthetic and nourished his practice as an artist. Among his favorite poets were Symbolists like Stéphane Mallarmé and Arthur Rimbaud, who both had a lasting impact on him. He also admired contemporary poets associated with Surrealism, such as Paul Éluard, Henri Michaux, Federico García Lorca and Octavio Paz. And through his involvement with the New York School, Motherwell had meaningful interactions with figures like Harold Rosenberg (one of whose poems inspired him to create the most generative drawing of his entire career, Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 1). But none in that context appears to have been closer to him than Frank O’Hara.
Motherwell and O’Hara respected each other, and they had a lot in common, starting with the fact that they had both studied at Harvard. Crucially, they shared a love for poetry and painting. Motherwell’s art was deeply engaged with the realm of poetry, as O’Hara’s poetry was with the realm of painting; his style has often been described as painterly by literary critics. Together, they contributed to the intense dialogue between painting and poetry in the twentieth century. Both were intellectuals who made their sensitive experience of the world their subject matter, and both were articulate spokesmen for the new painting and for modernism more generally. In addition to being a gifted, exuberant poet and critic, O’Hara was also a curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, where he organized several shows on the Abstract Expressionists. So, when that institution offered Motherwell a retrospective in 1965, it felt natural for him to request that Frank O’Hara be the one to curate the exhibition and write the accompanying publication, especially since O’Hara had already curated a retrospective exhibition of Motherwell’s work for the VI Bienal de São Paulo in 1961. As the painter noted, “having a retrospective is making a will,” so the stakes were very high for him, and the two of them worked intensely to prepare the MoMA show. During that process, O’Hara notably helped Motherwell make sense of his most recent and perhaps his greatest achievement on paper, namely the Lyric Suite
Following O’Hara’s untimely death in 1966, Motherwell was asked to contribute a drawing to In Memory of My Feelings, a memorial collection of O’Hara’s poems published by MoMA in the winter of 1967. He was one of thirty artists enlisted to illustrate specific poems on acetate sheets, which in turn were published as lithographs as part of a limited edition. Motherwell’s composition, executed in ink, responded to “Poem (to James Schuyler),” and it clearly was particularly important to him: he even took the trouble to indicate with graphite lines and annotations how the central motif was to be cropped before publication. It is one of his most powerful drawings, and it combines many characteristics one associates with him: verve and pent-up energy, gesture, and a sense of the calligraphic, as well as an evocation of the ovoid shapes of the Elegies. The drawing is unmistakably a testament to O’Hara, who had helped him in an effort to establish his legacy; it is tempting somehow to see it also as an aesthetic will of its own.
The drawing is on view through March 12, 2023 in Robert Motherwell Drawing: As Fast as the Mind Itself, the retrospective currently on display at the Menil Drawing Institute in Houston.