The Brooklyn Rail


All Issues
JULY/AUG 2023 Issue

Robert Motherwell: Pure Painting

Installation view: <em>Robert Motherwell: Pure Painting</em>, The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, TX, 2023. Courtesy The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
Installation view: Robert Motherwell: Pure Painting, The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, TX, 2023. Courtesy The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

On View
Modern Art Museum Of Fort Worth
Pure Painting
June 4–September 17, 2023
Fort Worth, TX

Of the core artists of Abstract Expressionism, perhaps none have been less visible in recent decades than Robert Motherwell. Once at the forefront of considerations of the School of New York—a term he coined, in 1950—Motherwell has receded from view since 1991, when his last major retrospective opened just months after his death. His dedication to abstraction and his determination, in the monumental and extensive series “Elegies to the Spanish Republic,” to evoke the emotional implications of political events seem particularly relevant to the present moment: with crises from climate change and the invasion of Ukraine to the ongoing tolls of racism and broken governance all but demanding a response from artists, the example of a predecessor deeply pondering the creation of art amid such issues may be instructive, even inspiring.

Motherwell was no political activist. Initially, his banker father resisted his plans to study art, so he came at it circuitously, through the study of philosophy and art history at Stanford, Harvard, and Columbia (a background that many of his fellow artists viewed skeptically). This detour gave him a profound knowledge of aesthetics as well as modern painting and poetry; coupled with a ruminative disposition, he quickly gained the reputation of an intellectual—not the compliment at midcentury that we might today assume. Nonetheless, Motherwell did not approach artmaking as a theoretical problem or define his artworks as ideas to be executed once conceived. Throughout his life, he insisted on the primacy of spontaneity to his work and his aim at expressing, as directly and honestly as he could, the deeply felt nature of his own reality. He once described his desire “to come into harmony with myself, to paint as I breathe or move or dream, to make works that are as natural in their execution, as inevitable in their ultimate form as a stone or a wall.” 1

The retrospective at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, on view until September 17th, offers ample opportunities to consider, and reassess, Motherwell’s painted oeuvre through almost sixty well-chosen examples. Curated by Susan Davidson, who as a longtime curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York organized a 2013 exhibition on Motherwell’s early collages, it will subsequently travel to the Kunstforum Wien, Austria. Generously installed in the Modern’s spacious galleries, the exhibition gives abundant opportunity to consider its subtitle, Pure Painting. Shifting away from the trend of monographic presentations across a range of media, Pure Painting focuses on painting alone. This is a significant decision, as works on paper were crucial to Motherwell’s creative process. Like many artists of his generation, he found generative inspiration in the Surrealist process of automatism—prominent in his drawings and visible largely in his paintings through the underlayers and small apertures in such early works as Recuerdo de Coyoacán (1942). Furthermore, no other American artist of his generation was more profoundly shaped by the generative process of collage.

Robert Motherwell,<em> Elegy to the Spanish Republic</em>, 1960. Boucour Magna paint on canvas Unframed: 72 x 96 1/4 x 1 inhes. Framed: 73 1/2 x 97 3/4 x 1 3/4 inches. © Copyright 2023 Dedalus Foundation, Inc. / Licensed by the Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Collection of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Museum purchase, The Friends of Art Endowment Fund.
Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 1960. Boucour Magna paint on canvas Unframed: 72 x 96 1/4 x 1 inhes. Framed: 73 1/2 x 97 3/4 x 1 3/4 inches. © Copyright 2023 Dedalus Foundation, Inc. / Licensed by the Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Collection of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Museum purchase, The Friends of Art Endowment Fund.

Earlier this year, a selection of Motherwell’s collages was included in an exquisite survey of the artist’s drawings at the Menil Collection’s Drawing Institute in Houston. Even though there are no collages per se in the Modern’s exhibition, the ethos of collage-making—its play of layers and planes, and the accompanying tension between covering and splaying, compression and extension—makes itself felt in much of his painted work, especially from his early years. In such examples as The Voyage (1948–49), Motherwell would distribute clearly contoured, overlapping shapes in a narrow range of colors, a compositional approach suggesting collage as an informing, creative principle as much as a physical technique.

“Pure Painting,” then, functions as a kind of disclaimer, noting what visitors to the exhibition will find, but it is also curiously old-fashioned. While the title is technically correct, it partakes in little of the midcentury formalism typically associated with the phrase; likewise, Motherwell’s approach engages surprisingly little in his generation’s habitual insistence on spontaneity. Instead, Davidson has focused on a quality in Motherwell’s work so distinctive as to be defining: as he put it, “I essentially work by revision.”2 Certainly other artists have made decisive changes from one version of a composition to the next, a process highlighted in series of photographs of paintings in progress by Matisse and de Kooning, among others. But few have relied on this process as extensively as Motherwell, reworking paintings, often substantially, years later: the paintings in the Modern’s exhibition often carry multiple sets of dates (for example, the museum’s own Elegy to the Spanish Republic, dated ca. 1961/1982). The defining factor of Motherwell’s version of “pure painting” is an extended but often discontinuous engagement with paintings in his studio, even those returned from exhibition.

Robert Motherwell, The Homely Protestant, 1948. Oil and casein on Masonite, 97 3/4 × 48 1/4 inches. © Copyright 2023 Dedalus Foundation, Inc. / Licensed by the Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of the artist.

The thoughtful, handsomely designed catalog is helpful in this regard, offering comparative photographs of earlier, presumably finished versions of such works as Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 100 (1962–63/1973–75), which was included in Motherwell’s 1965 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, then reworked on at least two subsequent occasions. Confronted with the paintings themselves, a knotty question arises: how are these processes of effacement, correction, and addition made manifest in the resulting canvases? Unlike, say, de Kooning or Pollock, gestural brushwork or pockets of underlying marks are not Motherwell’s hallmarks: his revisions do not necessarily call attention to themselves. From time to time, particularly in works of the late 1940s, such as The Homely Protestant (1948) or Wall Painting with Stripes (1944–45), underlayers are visible, but Motherwell largely shed this narrative effect in the ensuing decades of work. Instead, the process is figured in different ways, but particularly in the little gaps and lacunae by which forms, brushstrokes, or stains almost meet, leaving white ground or other layers of color to show through. A flickering echo of the joining of elements in collage, such interstices often disrupt even the expanses of Motherwell’s larger compositions—see, for example, the careful framing of a splashed form in New England Elegy No. 2 (1965–66) or the way the blacks of Spanish Painting with the Face of a Dog (1958-1960) surround brushy underlayers of white and ochre.

These persistent interstices charge Motherwell’s paintings with a kind of nervous energy that speaks to the apparently provisional nature of any pictorial resolution for him. Yet they likewise point to one of his most persistent traits: a quality often dismissed as self-consciousness and conjured in Clement Greenberg’s review of Motherwell’s very first show: “Only let him stop watching himself, let him stop thinking instead of painting himself through.”3 Self-consciousness was, of course, anathema to a generation of artists (and viewers) that expected art to be spontaneous and direct. But the persistently fascinating element of Motherwell’s painting oeuvre is this admittedly elusive quality: a sort of awkwardness, a seeming reluctance to let things be, one layer of black (the most consistent element throughout these paintings) upon another, the edges of forms almost-but-not-quite meeting, a narrow if idiosyncratic range of colors frequently glimpsed only at these near-junctions. Large shapes and colors often sit uneasily, their drama tempered by the smallest of adjustments: the uneven outlining of forms in Summertime in Italy No. 28 (1962), the unexpected muddying of colors in center of Je t’aime No. II (1955), the brown brushstrokes fussing around the edges of a red rectangle in The Garden Window (1969/1990). There is something compelling, and highly instructive, about the very uneasiness of Motherwell’s paintings (with a few exceptions, such as the masterful open-like Rothko Elegy [1970]). His paintings testify to the ongoing labor of finding a way to paint, to keep going, to refuse to be paralyzed by all the information in one’s head—whether the overwhelming achievements of modernist predecessors or the relentless onslaught of the world—and to give expression to one’s self (whatever that may be) and be willing to risk whatever has been achieved by going into the painting one more time. Motherwell may have wanted to paint in harmony with himself, as he breathed or moved, but he considered himself clumsy, and he had a history of severe asthma. Motherwell’s pure painting may be most compelling when he was at his most uncomfortable.


  1. Motherwell, “A Personal Expression,” The Writings of Robert Motherwell, ed. Dore Ashton with Joan Banach (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 76 [originally presented at the Seventh Annual Conference of the Committee on Art Education, New York, March 19, 1949].
  2. Motherwell, in interview with Bryan Robertson (1964), quoted in Susan Davidson, “Flashes of Clarity,” in Susan Davidson, ed., Robert Motherwell: Pure Painting (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2023), 16.
  3. Greenberg, “Review of Exhibitions by William Baziotes and Robert Motherwell,” in The Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 1, John O’Brian, ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 240-42 [originally published in The Nation (November 11, 1944)].


Catherine Craft

Catherine Craft is a scholar of Dada, Abstract Expression, and Neo-Dada and the author of An Audience of Artists. She is curator at the Nasher Sculpture Center, where she has organized exhibitions dedicated to Jean Arp, Nairy Baghramian, Carol Bove, and Melvin Edwards, among others.


The Brooklyn Rail


All Issues