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Dark Continent

An Ab-Ex Masterstroke Gets A Proper Framing In a New Exhibit

Robert Motherwell’s "Africa"

By Bret McCabe | Posted 6/21/2006

Robert Motherwell: Meanings of Abstraction

At the Baltimore Museum of Art through July 30

Robert Motherwell’s 1965 "Africa" stretches across the wall at the Baltimore Museum of Art like a mounted trophy centerpiece to any room. When hung in its usual home in the BMA’s West Wing for contemporary art, it is but one of many large-scale, wall-devouring canvases. Hung as part of the current Robert Motherwell: Meanings of Abstraction--alongside some of Motherwell’s other works and other paintings from the era in the BMA’s Thalheimer Gallery--and the painting’s grandiose, idiosyncratic ambition becomes as oddly obvious as a squirrel trying to ride an ostrich like a cowboy. A lunging streak of black juts from the from the bottom left corner of the canvas and leans until it bleeds into the entire right edge, but "Africa" isn’t a simple black and white juxtaposition of positive and negative space. The black streak’s lower horizontal third doesn’t cover the entire canvas. White pseudopodia cut into the deep, matte black as if erasure marks, leaving behind an uvula isthmus of a black bell clapper abandoned in a stark void--a void that feels as if any moment now the black wave is going to swallow us, leaving behind a vertigo of serene violence and calm antagonism.

Looking at "Africa" precipitates this bizarre experience, as vehemently confounding an amorphous blurt as Motherwell ever turned out, and yet the experiential limbos that the artist typically evokes--which flutter somewhere between genuflecting onanism, visceral emotional ripples, sparring condescension, and the polite soft-shoe around his reputation--is overshadowed by the more subtle, sideways tangents that this exhibition elicits. As opposed to the usual retrospective that spotlights an artist’s career as a nonlinear progression or the curatorial pairing that invites basic dialectical comparing and contrasting, with Meanings Darsie Alexander, the BMA’s senior curator of contemporary art, mines the museum’s permanent collection to let its Motherwells have an intimate gallery discussion with specific works from William Baziotes, Arshile Gorky, Grace Hartigan, Ellsworth Kelly, Franz Kline, Lee Krasner, André Masson, Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollock, Aaron Siskind, David Smith, and Tony Smith. And what the exhibition offers is a chance to consider Motherwell as mark maker, image editor, and visual polymath--in the process exploring Abstract Expressionism as visual vocabulary rather than seismic generational personality tic.

Motherwell’s status as Abstract Expressionism’s most erudite and eloquent infantryman was long established by the time he passed away in 1991 at the age of 76. It was a reputation earned by his early education in philosophy and aesthetics at Stanford and Harvard, his work as a scholarly writer and editor, and during the rigorous debates-qua-informal lecture series--later dubbed the Eighth Street Club--that grew out of the short-lived school he co-founded alongside Baziotes, Mark Rothko, and David Hare in 1948. (For more detailed, researched, and convivial accounts of the carnival that was the art world in postwar New York, see Jed Perl’s name-taking, ass-kicking New Art City.) His long shadow is also aided by the fact that save Willem de Kooning--and with apologies to Hartigan and Motherwell’s ex-wife Helen Frankenthaler--Motherwell lived longer than any of Ab-Ex’s news-making marquee names.

While a tad younger than his peers and arguably a bit less prone to outward displays of charismatic egotism, Motherwell the person is intrinsically linked to Motherwell the artist. His intellectual pursuits fed into his painting’s rigorous aura--as did Motherwell the writer’s knack for aphoristic eloquence. In a 1991 letter to the New York Times, then-New York University President John Brademas remembered Motherwell’s 1970 congressional testimony to encourage teaching about the environment in classrooms: "As an artist, I am used to being regarded as a somewhat eccentric maker of refined, but rather unintelligible, objects of perception. Actually, those objects contain a murderous rage, in black and white forms, of what passes for the business of everyday life, a life so dehumanized, so atrophied in its responsibility that it cannot even recognize a statement as subtle and complicated as the human spirit it is meant to represent."

Such intoxicating words--as well as almost 50 years of combative criticism of Abstract Expressionism both pro and con--make it easy to seek the transcendent in Motherwell’s works. Febrile yet sedate, his simple palette forms complex compositions, and sometimes titled by a mind who recognized the honeyed enigma of words, Motherwell’s output of paintings, prints, and collages encourages passionate responses in viewers and critics. What it doesn’t promote is a consideration of the craft that goes into creating that monolithic enigma when seen alongside himself and his peers.

Meanings invites that very close inspection. Seeing his "Summertime in Italy" (1965-’66) lithograph and "Yellow Abstract Composition" (1942) ink drawing in such close proximity to the huge "Africa" spotlights Motherwell’s exacting finesse with his composition’s economical directionality and maximizing light/dark contrast with small shape forms. More illuminating is his 1971 "Basque Suite" lithograph, a composition that feels almost like a single character of Asian calligraphy. The inverted V shape reads almost like a typographic study for a larger work, as if exploring just how a specific simple conflation of gestures becomes a vocabulary element.

Motherwell was extremely fond of the series, often doing multiple versions of ideas, and in this "Basque Suite" you get a sense of how much attention he paid to his lines. You almost want to hazard the guess that the only hard edges in Motherwell’s entire oeuvre are found where his canvases end; his large-scale paintings lead you to believe he favored the jagged, brushstroke-defined imperfections to his marks. Possibly true, but when seen inside the tighter confines of smaller pieces such as this "Basque Suite," where but a few gestures go into forming its central motif, you get a glimpse of the precision that informs his inchoate lines.

The centerpiece of this show--the 1965 "Elegy to the Spanish Republic CII," a promised gift to the BMA--is also the most problematic, but not for its so-called political associations. If anything, Motherwell’s intensely personal vocabulary actually becomes more hospitable when any external factors can be used to help shape an emotional response to his works. More slippery is that his elegies’ recurring motifs of rounded ovoids nuzzling against vertical bands aren’t as present in the other Motherwells on view, and when taking in this 1965 painting, it arrives with all the usual Motherwell baggage intact. Don’t rush by it by any stretch of the imagination--we’re curious to see where it eventually ends up when and if it is installed in the permanent collection--but definitely spend some personal time with the cinematic dimensions and raw ambition of "Africa." Getting to view this signature BMA piece recontextualized is this show’s ecstatic gift.

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