Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Expressionist as Rationalist

Thinking is not always associated with abstract expressionism. After all, the technique was called “action painting” and it’s quarterback, Jackson Pollock, was intentionally or unintentionally rough around the edges. He had some of the qualities of the outsider artist with his edgy personality and primal energy. “Robert Motherwell: The East Hampton Years, l944-52,” the exhibit currently on display at East Hampton’s Guild Hall (which is also the title of the book to accompany the exhibition by Phyllis Tuchman), records the sensibility of an artist who came to abstract expressionism from a more cognitive direction than some of his contemporaries. Motherwell was a Stanford graduate who studied philosophy at Harvard and art history with Meyer Schapiro at Columbia. He hung around with the likes of the architect Percival Goodman and when Goodman commissioned him to do a wall painting at B’nai Israel Synagogue in Milburn, New Jersey he consulted Schapiro on Jewish Iconography. Although not part of the current show, “Elegy for the Spanish Republic” (1961), with its political overtones (calling to mind Picasso’s “Guernica,” l937) is one of his most famous paintings and he provided drawings for a poem by Harold Rosenberg (the future art critic of The New Yorker) in a magazine they were both involved with, Possiblilities. In addition, as a young man he travelled to Europe with his father, where he had the luxury to weigh his options between surrealism and cubism. The exhibit features a film in which Motherwell comments on the violence of abstract expressionism quoting Rothko to the effect that “people don’t understand how aggressive my paintings are.” One of his best friends was David Smith and Motherwell was a charter member of the famous circle that included Rothko, Pollock, Kline, de Kooning and Newman. But the film reveals a personality that had the repose to also consider the very movement he was part of from the distance. It’s as if there were six degrees of separation between Motherwell and his contemporaries. He wanted to have his cake and eat it too. Extemporaneity and action were part of his process, but he constantly reworked his paintings and separated himself from his crowd to the extent that he thought before he acted. Eric Bentley wrote The Playwright as Thinker about Brecht. Someone could undertake a monograph on Motherwell called The Expressionist as Rationalist. Here for instance is a text by the poet and painter Henri Michaux which is the centerpiece of a drawing from l952 entitled “In Bed:”  “The sickness that I have condemns me to absolute immobility in bed. When my boredom takes on such excessive proportions that it will wreck my equilibrium this is what I do: I smash my skull--stretch it out before me as far as possible; and when it is all flat, I send out my cavalry. The horses stamp distinctly on the the firm yellow soil.The squadrons then break into a trot and there’s prancing and kicking. And the noise, this clear and repeated rhythm, this excitement that breathes struggle and Victory, enchants the soul of one who is nailed to his bed, and cannot make a move.” For good or bad, Motherwell was tethered to words from the very beginning of his career.

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