Artist: Robert Motherwell (American, Aberdeen, Washington 1915–1991 Provincetown, Massachusetts)
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 69 x 114 in. (175.3 x 289.6 cm)
Credit Line: Anonymous Gift, 1965
Accession Number: 65.247
Rights and Reproduction: Art © Dedalus Foundation /Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Motherwell's path to becoming an abstract artist was through philosophy, art history, and poetry. He studied at Stanford, Harvard, and then Columbia, where he was introduced to émigré Surrealists (including Matta) by art historian Meyer Schapiro. His particular genesis as an abstractionist has its basis in Mallarmé, whose dictum "To paint, not the thing, but the effect it provides" was pivotal.
Another pivotal moment came in 1937 in San Francisco, where he heard André Malraux speak at a rally on the Spanish Civil War. There, Motherwell found a great moral issue that would drive his work for years. In his words, it was the realization "that the world could, after all, regress." His Elegies to the Spanish Republic have been a vehicle to express what Motherwell has called "a funeral song for something one cared about" in abstract, visual terms. The series, which was sparked by a small drawing Motherwell made in 1948 to accompany a poem by Harold Rosenberg, evolved into an ongoing, years-long exploration of the theme in more than 150 monumental canvases.
These abstract meditations on life and death share a common structure in compositional form. The horizontal white canvas is divided by two or three vertical black bars or bands. Those are punctuated at various intervals by ovoid shapes-stark blots of black. The whole is a dialogue of formal opposites-straight, curved, black, white-executed in a painterly, brushy manner in which the act of creation is evident. For Motherwell, as for so many other Abstract Expressionists, this is a search for universal content that stems from form itself: in his words, "…the Elegies use an essential component of pictorial language that is as basic as the polyphonic rhythms of Medieval or African or Oriental music."