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Stepped down along the single helix of the Guggenheim's gallery, about 150 bright works by Robert Motherwell convey the impression of a thread of DNA on some colossal scale. Motherwell's work falls into four sorts--elegies, opens, collages and a somewhat ill-defined type I shall designate occasional paintings--about the same number as the bases, sugars and phosphates that compose a nucleotide unit in the DNA polymer. No representative collection of contemporary art should have less than a whole Motherwell unit--one each of the elegies, opens, colleges and occasional paintings, which come in various sizes to suit the acquistional resources and ambitions of different museums. Such a tetrad is the very minimum necessary for coming to terms with an artist it is clearly easier to rhapsodize about than analyze, and even at that, one's understanding would be limited. For Motherwell's total corpus--he turned 70 this year and has been showing his paintings for four decades--is characterized by a remarkable degree of replication: there are about 150 elegies so far, for example, and over 200 opens. It is as though he had, in the spirit of the Nietzschian yeasayer, endorsed a kind of eternal recurrence, and it is this recurrence that gives his career a weight unpredictable from the seeming lightness of the single works.

Not every artist can stand up against the cruel demands of the Guggenheim space, where each painting must be experienced in several distinct ways. One traces a single path down the narrow ribbon of the main gallery; if the display is chronological, one internalizes the life externalized on the walls, and if the life there is barren, the experience is bleak. But the dimensions of the path itself, as of the interior space of the museum's core, impose severe constraints on the appreciation of single works, since one cannot help seeing each work twice, once close up and once across the vast shaft of emptiness the building winds itself around. For certain paintings this may be too close and too far. They fairly narrow ramp forbids the optimal distance for certain paintings, which is somewhere behind the retaining wall in the unoccupiable void. But by the time one too far. I remember that the Rothko show, which ought to have been overwhelming, failed the test of this museum, for at the imposed distances his banded canvases looked like so many Indian blankets, slightly garish. But Motherwell and the Guggenheim were made for one another, and the show is a triumph and a rare fulfillment of what must have been Frank Lloyd Wright's generating vision. The Guggenheim's brooding spiral affords a rare interpretive opportunity, especially since the whole of this show has a different interest--because of the repetitions--than the modular parts. The Watson and Crick in each of us to want to crack its code.

Describing two of his paintings, "Iberia" and "Spanish Painting with the Face of a Dog," Motherwell observes in an interview that one would have to know certain things about Spanish bullrings and indeed about Spanish bulls in order to understand what is going on. Both the paintings, he says, "have a bull in them, but you cannot really see the bull. They are an equivalence of the ferocity of the whole encounter." What he shows, and this is general, is the feeling rather than the look. He thus complies with a famous imperative in Mallarme: "Paint not the thing but the effect the thing produces." Two points follow from this. First, Motherwell's work is abstract in the sense of being nonrealistic but not in the sense of being nonobjective. Each painting is about some definite thing that could have been shown realistically had the artist decided to paint against Mallarme's injunction. Each of the works is a response to some visual reality, in principle accessible to us all. From this his art derives its universality. And the essential objectivity invalidates in advance the standard formalistic responses to his paintings.

But second, the effect a given visual reality will have on us varies profoundly according to our individual experience and sensibility, our psychic histories. Motherwell's style derives from his personal experiences, and this severely limits the sort of interpretation that refers to the influences of other artists. You cannot subtract his world or his affective substance from the paintings and concentrate merely on what is left, for they are severely reduced if they are not perceived as a double opening into a painted world and a soul. Small wonder then that openings should play so central a role in his iconography: the opens exemplify his philosophy of art. And small wonder that the linear experience of the whole show is so powerful: here is a powerful life responding powerfully to powerful stimuli.

The collages are perhaps the most natural entries into the somewhat complex interpretation each work demands, simply because each has an object pasted on it to which the whole work responds. Two of them show wrappings used by the French publisher Gallimard to ship issues of NRF, presumably to R.M. himself. This says something about the kind of person the painter is: NRF, for a time edited by Andre Gide, is an intellectually rarified magazine of French thought and imagination. It is difficult to imagine other members of the New York School reading it, let alone subscribing to it. Another collage, "The French Line," contains a label from a sachet of gressins, a kind of gourmet emblem one could not imagine figuring in the gustatory life of Jackson Pollock. Motherwell stands out from his artistic peers like the preppie in the Gashouse Gang--intellectual, refined, fastidious, sybaritic. But the label is also patterned with vertical stripes, alterallude to his prophetic "The Little Spanish Prison" of 1941, which uses stripes in a way later made central by Sean Scully. The label is pasted onto a white rectangle, surrounded by an orange arch, the same color as the strips. Arches connote triumph. The work might then mean triumph over taste; it is so tasteful as to falsify itself. It is a witty, allusive work, but also the signature of a personality at home in atmospheres only dimly known to the roughnecks of Abstract Expressionism, with whom he was also at home.

The occasional paintings, on the other hand, distance the objects which occasion them in favor of their effect, though you can usually tell, often from the helpful titles, to what they refer. "Fishes with Red Stripes" plays off the prepositional ambiguity of "with," since these are red-striped fish but also fish which occupy the same space as a red horizontal stripe. You can tell that the painting is of ish by the shapes on the canvas, which convey the feeling of fish -- not, I think, a very deep feeling for Motherwell. A deeper feeling is displayed toward the figure in "Interior with Pink Nude" of 1951, where the nude is not a life study but an eroticized set of protuberances, a synesthesia of skin and palpability. For the deepest feelings of all, one must address the two great suites: the Spanish elegies and the considerably more demanding opens.

I know of no paintings by a contemporary artist more moving than the spanish elegies. Their power must somehow be explained by the feeling in Motherwell that he has managed to objectify, and which has driven him in an obsessive way to deposit repeatedly much the same array of forms. I recall being transfixed the first time I saw one of them, which I knew, instantly, to be a great and serious work, even though I did not know the title or the specific meaning. The elegies are typically composed of two or three ovoid forms, clearly living and probably human, interspersed with vertical bars, clearly inanimate and probably architectural. All the forms are black. One knows without reflection that one is not looking merely at a heavily painted pattern of ovals and bars, an expressionistically painted segment of an egg-and-dart frieze, in part because one knows that the shapes are not painted against a white background but are located in a white space. It is a space purged by violence, leaving human remnants and architectural fragments to testify to a vanished plenitude. The power of these works is unaffected by variations in scale or by the addition of auxiliary colors or by an increase in the umber of elements. Whatever the feeling underlying them, it can neither be denied nor eradicated, and the spiritual meaning of the repetitions transcends, accordingly, the meaning common to the several instances. Repetition in some artists can simply be evidence of a dried inspiration. In others it is part of the content of the work: Donald Judd's works contain repetitions as components of their identity. In Motherwell, the repetitions are not in the works but in the oeuvre. They re-express an enduring feeling. His Irish elegies, on the other hand, are not convincing in this way. The muted color of shamrock is too mechanically iconic a color to go with depth, and I doubt the feeling is there to sustain a series. It is too willed.

The opens, finally, are the most demanding of Motherwell's works because they are initially the most empty. They characteristically consist of a single monochrome rectangle, horizontal and very large, usually red, on (or in) which is drawn a vertical rectangle. That is the "opening." The lines of the interior form are thin and almost casual, and seem weak in relation to the large rectangle, whose edges are the edges of the canvas. The opens present themselves as walls of paint, much in the manner in which Balzac descibes the legendary chef-d'oeuvre inconnu in his overwhelming parable of artisitc search. They are walls, and they are of walls. The smaller form depicts (or is) an opening into some marvelous occluded space beyond. This is a great metaphor for the human condition, to which Motherwell, trained as a philosopher, must be sensitive, but it is least compelling when most literary, as in the somber "In Plato's Cave No. 1" of 1972. Hegel speaks of philosophy as "painting its grey in grey," and so this is a philosophical painting in substance and in execution. But just because Motherwell thinks philosophically, he should know better than to show the wall of Plato's cave in this way. Plato's cave is our world, full of the colors and shapes whose absence makes the world of the Spanish elegies so wasted. To see that this very world, noisy and bright and warm, is also as insubstantial as a show of shadows is to grasp the great dislocating force of Plato's stunning image. The cave is not a drab opening to something more radiant, but the very surface of the perceived world as a window into a colorless abstraction.

Well, this is a beginning. It is a sobering thought that the words of appraisal one wants to apply to these works--elegant, thoughtful, austere, intellectual, critical, aristocratic, subtle, tasteful, refined--are almost terms of studied abuse in the art world of our time. In this sense Motherwell's paintings stand as a mirror of our age: in their greace we see our tawdriness.
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Title Annotation:Robert Motherwell, Guggenheim Museum, New York
Author:Danto, Arthur Coleman
Publication:The Nation
Date:Jan 19, 1985
Previous Article:Rejoicings: poems 1966-1972.
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