Robert Motherwell might very well be the most intelligent, educated, and thoughtful artist to emerge from the Abstract Expressionism movement. That’s a bold claim, as the whole genre is populated with towering intellects. Abstract Expressionism requires penetrating thought to accompany the actual physical skills and training necessary to get the ideas on the canvas. Unlike traditional representational art, simply being able to produce a recognizable image is not enough. Robert Motherwell, like many of his contemporaries, broke new ground by keenly analyzing and synthesizing what had come before them, and then pushed past it into the realm of pure expression of thought and feeling on the canvas.
An Unusually Modest Man
Modern artists often need to be self-promoters. In any walk of life, when you try to break new ground, you’re bound to receive criticism and discrimination by the forces of cultural inertia. Many artists are able to appeal directly to the public, or more usually through key patrons, in order to get their vision seen and understood. This can lead to a form of self-aggrandizement that would seem tasteless in an ordinary walk of life, but becomes necessary to get your voice heard in a crowded intellectual marketplace.
Robert Motherwell certainly had the intellectual credentials to push himself forward. He was extremely well-educated, and in diverse subjects, including art history, philosophy, and literature. As the son of a conservative, well-to-do banker, Motherwell was pushed to do something more “respectable” than being an artist, but he had a dogged determination to succeed that eventually won over his family. His superb education and his demonstrated ability as a writer and editor made him a natural, if unofficial, spokesman for Abstract Art in general, and Abstract Expressionism in particular. Motherwell knew exactly what he was doing, what his contemporaries were doing, and how to explain it to the public.
Critics Aren’t Wrong. Critics Don’t Matter
Most artists would take offense at critics who panned their works. This usually takes the form of arguing about the merits of the critic’s ideas. Artists, especially abstract artists, can claim their opinions about their work trump all others because only they know for sure what they were driving at on the canvas. Motherwell took a more humble but somehow more devastating approach to art criticism. He never said any particular critic was wrong. He said their opinions carried no more weight than anyone else’s, including his own.
To Motherwell, art criticism could never produce the “right” answer. He felt that Abstract Art was intrinsically a rebellion against tradition, but that all rebellion had to be tempered by restraint, or it would descend into anarchy. His approach to art was designed to provoke questions, start discussions, and lead to conflicts which would eventually move the needle of Modern Art, but not break it. The critic was entitled to an opinion. So was everyone else, in equal measure.
Between Tradition and Rebellion
Unlike many of his contemporaries in the New York School, Robert Motherwell was a productive artist for his entire life, and kept working, writing, and teaching until his death in 1991 at the age of 76. His most well-known work, Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 110, is part of an astonishing series of more than 140 paintings devoted to the Spanish Civil War that preceded World War II. The series of rough rectangular and oval shapes bring visions of humanity caught or crushed between walls, or perhaps the triumph of the human spirit over the dead hand of warfare. Now on display at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the work still brings out the spirited discussions of its meaning that Motherwell loved to elicit.
Los Angeles abstract artist Diana Hobson also uses combinations of supple forms and blocky shapes to provoke contrasts and tension in her work, and discussion and speculation among its viewers. Unlike Motherwell’s Elegy, however, Hobson’s DHNYDHLA uses vibrant color and shading to produce a deeper depth of field and a more overt feeling of energy and motion. Like Robert Motherwell’s work, there are cues for the viewer in the name of the work, and a feeling of reprise without boredom. DHNYDHLA is as ebullient as Elegy is somber, but the ability to put the pure feeling of tension, release, and repetition on the canvas without relying on traditional depictions of people or objects is similar. You can see Los Angeles abstract artist Diana Hobson’s DHNYDHLA, along with many more of her fine works, at her gallery in Venice, California.
Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 110 by Robert Motherwell, 1971. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Gift, Agnes Gund, 1984
DHNYDHLA by Diana Hobson, 2009. Copyright Diana Hobson. Used by permission.