January 24, 2010
Idealistic, dogged, and deeply influenced by the writings of Whitehead and Kant, ROBERT MOTHERWELL (1915-91) welcomed any opportunity to make visible his ethic, which, he wrote, was “my identity as a man.” Though his 1950 protest of the Metropolitan Museum’s exclusion of contemporary art got him lumped together with the “Irascible Eighteen,” Motherwell’s expression of the monumental ideas communicated by postwar American Abstract Expressionism was more intellectual than angry; his teaching syllabus included Veblen’s theory of the leisure class and a significant section on the artist as an Ethical Individual. He wasn’t unemotional, though. “Acting with love in regard to art” sustained his very long career, through the decades-long plumbing of his Elegy to the Spanish Republic, based on a tiny ink drawing he made to illustrate a poem by critic Harold Rosenberg for their journal Possibilities (the journal never made it past one edition, though the Elegy series eventually included 140 paintings). Stylistically the low brass in contrast to some of his contemporaries’ soprano reeds, Motherwell devoted his later decades to the more colorful Open series of “wall and window” paintings. He died in Provincetown, where he had worked summers since his 1970 marriage to Helen Frankenthaler.
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