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Red Open with White Line, 1979 by Robert Motherwell


Red Open with White Line, 1979 by Robert Motherwell
Red Open with White Line, 1979 by Robert Motherwell

Red Open with White Line, 1979; Etching and aquatint in red and black, on Georges Duchêne Hawthorne of Larroque handmade paper; Initialed in ink, numbered 46/56 lower left; Published by the artist, with his blindstamp lower right; Catalogue Raisonne: Belknap 207; Size - Sheet: 18 x 35 1/2", Frame 27 x 46"; Framed floated with an acid free mat, wood frame, and plexiglass; Exhibited: Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, MA - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston MA, May 5 - October 14, 1984; The Modern Art of the Print: Selections from the Collection of Lois and Michael Torf, pl. XLIII, p. 118 (illustrated).


Robert Motherwell (1915 – 1991) was an American painter, print maker, writer, and editor. He was one of the youngest of the New York School (a term he coined), which also included the artists Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko.


Motherwell was the most educated of all of the abstract expressionist. He was from a well educated and wealthy family, and received a BA in philosophy from Stanford University. It was at Stanford that Motherwell was introduced to modernism through his extensive reading of symbolist and other literature, especially Mallarmé, James Joyce, Edgar Allan Poe, and Octavio Paz. Literary reference became a major theme of his later paintings and drawings. However, his father urged him to pursue a more secure career and Motherwell states that the reason he went to Harvard was because he wanted to be a painter: "And finally after months of really a cold war he made a very generous agreement with me that if I would get a Ph.D. so that I would be equipped to teach in a college as an economic insurance, he would give me fifty dollars a week for the rest of my life to do whatever I wanted to do on the assumption that with fifty dollars I could not starve but it would be no inducement to last. So with that agreed on Harvard then—it was actually the last year—Harvard still had the best philosophy school in the world. And since I had taken my degree at Stanford in philosophy, and since he didn't care what the Ph.D. was in, I went on to Harvard."


However, it was in 1940 that Motherwell would make an important decision. He moved to New York to study at Columbia University, where he was encouraged by the great critic/writer Meyer Schapiro to devote himself to painting rather than scholarship. Shapiro introduced the young artist to a group of exiled Parisian Surrealists including Max Ernst, Duchamp, and Andre Masson; and arranged for Motherwell to study with the Swiss artist Kurt Seligmann.


Matta introduced Motherwell to the concept of “automatic” drawings. Wolfgang Paalen would also have a profound impact on Motherwell, and his resulting drawings showed more plane graphic cadences and swelling ink-spots that referenced possible figurations. Motherwell would pass this information onto American painters such as Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and William Baziotes; whom Motherwell befriended in New York shortly after a trip to Mexico. In 1991, shortly before he died, Motherwell remembered a "conspiracy of silence" regarding Paalen´s innovative role to the genesis of Abstract Expressionism and to the New York School.


Robert Motherwell: "What I realized was that Americans potentially could paint like angels but that there was no creative principle around, so that everybody who liked modern art was copying it. Gorky was copying Picasso. Pollock was copying Picasso. De Kooning was copying Picasso. I mean I say this unqualifiedly. I was painting French intimate pictures or whatever. And all we needed was a creative principle, I mean something that would mobilize this capacity to paint in a creative way, and that's what Europe had that we hadn't had; we had always followed in their wake. And I thought of all the possibilities of free association—because I also had a psychoanalytic background and I understood the implications—might be the best chance to really make something entirely new which everybody agreed was the thing to do."


In 1942 Motherwell began to exhibit his work in New York and in 1944 had his first one-man show at Peggy Guggenheim’s “Art of This Century” gallery. Also in 1944 MoMA became the first museum to purchase one of his works. From the mid-1940s, Motherwell was the leading spokesman for avant-garde art in America, and his circle of friends included William Baziotes, David Hare, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko.


Throughout the 1950s Motherwell taught painting at Hunter College in New York and at Black Mountain College in North Carolina where his students included Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, and Kenneth Noland. During this time, he was a prolific writer and lecturer, directed the influential Documents of Modern Art Series, and edited The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, published in 1951. Also, during the 1950's Motherwell's collages began to incorporate material from his studio such as cigarette packets and labels that would become records of his daily life. He was married from 1958 to 1971, to Helen Frankenthaler, a successful abstract painter in her own right.


Robert Motherwell made his first prints in 1943 and returned to printmaking in the early 1960s at the invitation of the ULAE print studio. His later work with Tyler Graphics, Gemini G.E.L., and printers working in his own studio, evolved into an impressive body of nearly 460 prints influencing countless artists with his innovative ideas and printmaking techniques. The bulk of his work is comprised of gestural images (Elegies), a few are linear compositions (Opens), and a considerable number of prints that contain some element of collage.

Red Open with White Line is composed of a luminous field of red color that is interrupted by a subtle thin black line etched double rectangle, that hangs precariously from the upper right edge. The deeply bitten aquatint printed on the rough textured surface of the handmade paper results in a powerful intense saturation of hue, on a very rich modulated color field. The minimalist structure on a field of serenity is part of the "Open" repertoire by Motherwell that begun in 1967. The rectangle within a rectangle is the recurring theme of the "Opens" that suggests a window within a wall. The vast expansive quality of the red field runs in three directions but is arrested by the white line on the left margin edge. This is a wonderful example of Motherwell at his best, a great example of his brilliant use of color and form, and would be a great addition to any fine art collection.


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