Robert Motherwell: The Drawings of a Painter
The catalogue raisonné of Robert Motherwell’s drawings, which was published by Yale University Press in November 2022, was the culmination of more than ten years of research and serves as a companion to the 2012 catalogue raisonné of Motherwell’s paintings and collages.
As I worked on this publication, I came to cherish Motherwell’s drawings more and more. Although they are the drawings of a painter, and drawing is not the medium he is principally known for, it is here, in his drawings, that we see his mind at work most clearly and most vividly. In his drawings, we can see the quintessence of depth and breadth of his work, from the abstracted figures of the 1940s to his purely automatist Lyric Suite (1965) and spare geometric “Open” series of the 1960s, to his luminous graphic responses to James Joyce during the 1980s. Although his drawings are related to—and sometimes provided the seeds for—his paintings, he revered drawing as a unique practice of its own, which had its own character and involved particular demands. For Motherwell, the medium was “the only thing in human existence that has precisely the same range of sensed feeling as people themselves do. And it is only when you think of the medium as having the same potential as another human being, that you begin to see the nature of the artist’s involvement.”
Collecting, organizing, and presenting Motherwell’s drawings provided me with a unique opportunity to bring together many works that had long been lost to view, as often occurs with small-scale works on paper, and to see more familiar ones in a new light. Moreover, the current retrospective of his drawings at the Menil Drawing Institute has provided additional opportunities to have conversations about them with artists, curators, dealers, owners, and aficionados. The constant thread in these discussions has been that seeing together nearly fifty years of Motherwell’s drawings has been a revelation. The drawings are not only deeply resonant, but are also both an expansion on and a distillation of his pictorial vocabulary.
Motherwell said that in drawing he explored “the realm of possibilities.” Unlike his work in other mediums, in drawing “the act and the end result are one, in the most literal sense.” If the act of painting was “very discursive,” drawing was direct, and when Motherwell speaks of drawing, it is with “pleasure…akin to a state of enlightenment.” In his paintings he described each brush stroke as a “decision” and that “whatever ‘meaning’ [a] picture has is just the accumulated ‘meaning’ of ten thousand brush strokes.” When asked about his sketchbooks, though, he described them as “more like a secret and wholly spontaneous jeu d’esprit….They are invariably done without premeditation. I mean not only that I have no plan when I make them, I also have no plan to make them. Occasionally… I find myself with a sketchbook in my hand doing it, to my own astonishment.” He referred to the feeling of satisfaction in drawing as a kind of “zing!” moment: pure joy and release.
Temporality is crucial to his drawings, both in their making and in our experience of them. Drawing itself is the most primal of our visual expressions. It connected Motherwell to atavism, to the ancient past, to Paleolithic cave paintings and also to the drawings of children, which he held in high esteem. He was able to come the closest to his ideal of psychic automatism through his drawings: he executed them quickly, with few modifications, allowing his feelings to flow without self-consciousness or forethought. Motherwell’s drawings are, in terms of their intimacy and directness, his most generous expressions. It is through the directness of his drawings that he reveals processes that lie behind his most celebrated works, and unite his paintings, collages, and drawings, within a single oeuvre, brought together by a mind that is wide-ranging but grounded in a strong sense of personal identity. In his drawings we see how one work may lead to another, and how disparate, seemingly disjunctive movements within his broad oeuvre connect.
There are more than 1,400 works in the drawings catalogue raisonné, and in it one sees not so much a single-minded progression as a cyclical engagement with a variety of imagery and motifs. Some of these drawings were generative spaces, what the artist called a type of “doodling…. [which] would be my way of making studies.” Others were made after existing paintings or some image he found himself “preoccupied with.” Motherwell retained certain drawings and revisited them in series over long periods. These works, which became particularly generative of important strains in his oeuvre, he called “seed works.” Through them we can see how the echoes of his imagery reverberate across different media and become amplified through reinvention.
Motherwell’s drawings sometimes contain both direct responses to other artists—ranging from Renaissance painters such as Uccello, to contemporaries such as Picasso, Miró, Matta, and Frankenthaler. His drawings also contain references to various objects and places, and to poetry and literature. These kinds of invisible presences—“after-images,” as Motherwell called them—are often layered onto extremely personal references, which embodied what he called “the need for felt experience—intense, immediate, direct, subtle, unified, warm, vivid, rhythmic.” Taken together, these diverse elements constitute a pictorial vocabulary that is charged with references to things, events, and experiences that remain vividly present even when not explicitly delineated.
Motherwell himself found the complexity of his relationship to drawing, and drawing itself, difficult to define. In 1970, he wrote an essay called “Thoughts on Drawing” (included below), in which he discussed how nuanced and ambiguous a practice it was for him. This ambiguity reflects an openness in his approach to drawing and a resistance to any simplified explanation for artistic engagement—whether it be our understanding of abstraction or of drawing.
The writers gathered in this section—who include curators, researchers, and artists—have engaged deeply with both Motherwell’s drawings and their relationship to other artists. Their texts illustrate how the expansiveness of Motherwell’s oeuvre allows for innumerable points of entry. I am indebted to them for their insights, which help us to understand how the abstract art of the recent past remains relevant and alive through Motherwell’s drawings.