Approximately two years after Robert Motherwell abruptly stopped working on his Lyric Suite (1965), Roland Barthes, in his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” inquired about the status of the narrative voice in Honoré de Balzac’s Sarrasine (1830). “Who is speaking thus?” the French critic wondered. Is it “the hero of the story,” “Balzac the individual,” “Balzac the author,” or “Romantic psychology?” Concluding that one can never know, Barthes goes on to define writing as a space where the author “slips away,” as it is a medium where all identity, especially that of the writer, evaporates into the ether of language. To give a specific example, Barthes cites the poet Stéphane Mallarmé. Noting how the symbolist’s chance-based verse loosened “the sway of the Author,” Barthes explains that when Mallarmé writes “it is language which speaks,” not a named or known individual.1
Mallarmé, of course, was one of Motherwell’s heroes. Mallarmé’s Swan, a 1944 collage at The Cleveland Museum of Art, is just one of the artist’s many tributes to the great nineteenth-century poet and critic. Emboldened by Mallarmé’s suppression of authorial voice in poems such as “Un coup de dés” (“A Throw of the Dice,” 1897), Motherwell, before undertaking his Lyric Suite drawings in 1965, declared that he intended to “PAINT [A] THOUSAND SHEETS WITHOUT INTERRUPTION, WITHOUT A PRIORI TRADITIONAL OR MORAL PREJUDICES OR A POSTERIORI ONES, WITHOUT ICONOGRAPHY, AND ABOVE ALL WITHOUT REVISIONS OR ADDITIONS UPON CRITICAL REFLECTION AND JUDGEMENT AND SEE WHAT LIES WITHIN, WHATEVER IT IS.”2 Not surprisingly, the process behind the Lyric Suite resembles a Mallarméan aesthetic game of chance. Using sable watercolor brushes, Motherwell applied colored inks to 9-by-11-inch sheets of Japanese unryu paper that he arranged on the floor of his studio. As the splashed liquids randomly seeped into and dried on the pieces of paper, Motherwell both saw and felt the transformation of artistic subjectivity into a diverse array of amorphous puddles and blots. So exhilarating was this exercise, Motherwell is reported to have made around 550 of these drawings over the course of just one month.
Motherwell’s desire to eschew intentions as well as revisionist afterthoughts in this corpus of work must be evaluated intertextually. An erudite person who had studied philosophy at Harvard, Motherwell undoubtedly read W.K. Wimsatt and M.C. Beardsley’s “The Intentional Fallacy.”3 Perhaps mindful of their famous 1946 outline for how to perform rigorously pure, formal analyses of literary texts, he tried to create drawings that were so autotelic they could never be interpreted or fully understood through the lenses of history or biography. But respecting Motherwell’s intentions and focusing solely on the surfaces of his drawings, one learns that not only Mallarmé and psychic automatism are creative forces behind his Lyric Suite but also his then-wife and fellow Abstract Expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler. The colorful spatters and blurred and softened puddles that are fully embedded in the mulberry paper supports of the Lyric Suite are reminiscent of Frankenthaler’s sprawling passages of liquified color as seen in 1962–63 paintings such as the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Rock Pond (1962–63). Just as Frankenthaler’s acrylic medium sometimes oozed away from her diluted pigments, creating unexpected, semitransparent halations around her vibrant stains of color, Motherwell’s inks also chemically separated, generating luminous orange bleeds in many of the Lyric Suite drawings. In trying to abandon everything as he worked on the Lyric Suite, Motherwell perhaps discovered that it was Frankenthaler who occupied the depths of his psyche.
If Frankenthaler was one of the deeply rooted kernels motivating the Lyric Suite, she also played a role in Motherwell’s 1970 “Thoughts on Drawing.” There he quotes her assertion that one can “draw with color.” Motherwell may also have had Frankenthaler in mind in his text’s final paragraph, where he compares painting to the “soft warm skin of a woman,” pointing out its greater “sensuousness” than drawing. He additionally likens painting to an ocean that drawing cuts across as if it were a “racing yacht.”4 The latter might be an allusion to the Lyric Suite, in which Motherwell seized hold of the concentrated sensations and emotions instantaneously memorialized in his spouse’s monumental canvases and exfoliated them across several small sheets marked with the traces of iterated, impersonal gestures. This might explain why Motherwell never settles on a coherent definition of drawing in his 1970 essay. Similar to the multiple personalities who made their marks in the Lyric Suite, the medium of drawing for Motherwell is something that is enigmatic but capaciously plural.
- See Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author” , in Image, Music, Text, translated by Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 142-43.
These notes, which Robert C. Hobbs dates to 1965, are quoted in his “Robert Motherwell’s Open Series,” in Robert Motherwell, exh. cat. (Düsseldorf: Städtischen Kunsthalle, 1976), 48. The capitalization belongs to Motherwell.
W.K. Wimsatt, Jr., and M.C. Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy,” The Sewanee Review 54, no. 3 (July-September 1946): 468-88.
See Robert Motherwell, “Thoughts on Drawing,” in The Drawing Society National Exhibition 1970, exh. cat. (New York: The Drawing Society, 1970), [3-4].