Archive for Sunday, April 5, 1998


April 5, 1998


Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell was as interested in paper as he was in what ended up on it.

Motherwell used delicate rice papers and other varieties of paper stock not only as surfaces on which to brush his ink and oil paints but also as an element of the work itself.

``Robert Motherwell on Paper: Gesture, Variation, Continuity,'' a new exhibition of Motherwell's drawings, prints and collages at the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art, examines the products of the artist's fascination with paper as well as his interest in working with series.

For example, ``Lyric Suite'' is a series of ink paintings on rice paper produced in 1965 after Motherwell had a chance encounter with the materials.

``On an impulse one day in a Japanese shop in New York City, where I was buying a toy for a friend's child, I bought 10 packets of 100 sheets each of a Japanese rice paper called Dragons and Clouds,'' Motherwell is documenting as saying. ``Some weeks later -- early in April 1965, it came to me in a flash: Paint the thousand sheets without interruption, without a priori traditional or moral prejudices or a posteriori ones, without iconography, and above all without revisions or additions upon critical reflection and judgment.''

The result is a black-and-white series of gestural marks and brush strokes that shows the artist's refined touch.

``The exhibit looks at Motherwell in a different way,'' Steve Goddard, the Spencer Museum's senior curator, said. ``He's known as an Abstract Expressionist painter and a writer of art history. The exhibit looks at his works on paper on various themes and ... what now can be seen as series.''

The show, organized by the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University, was conceived with the artist shortly before his death in 1991 and features many unpublished or rarely exhibited works. The pieces were created between 1948 and 1989.

Goddard said the exhibition is divided into several thematic sections: ``Elegies to the Spanish Republic,'' ``Automatism,'' ``Selections from `Lyric Suite','' ``Je t'aime,'' ``Beside the Sea,'' ```Open' Studies and Beyond,'' ``Choreographics of M,'' ``Samurai,'' ``Drunk with Turpentine,'' ``Literary Figures'' and ``Night Music.''

``Je t'aime'' explores Motherwell's use of calligraphy in his paintings as a kind of emphasis or ``existing in'' thought. The series features the phrase ``je t'aime,'' which means ``I love you'' in French, and a recurring pattern of ovals and rectangular bars.

For ``Drunk with Turpentine,'' the artist used turpentine to thin his oil paint to the consistency of ink. The images made by the paint are outlined with a faint stain where the turpentine bled into the paper.

Motherwell, a writer, also made pictorial responses to literature during the 1980s. Several of the works in the ``Literary Figures'' section reflect his admiration for the writings of James Joyce. Similarly, his collage series ``Night Music,'' which features torn rice paper on black, is in response to the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

``Robert Motherwell on Paper: Gesture, Variation, Continuity'' runs through May 31 in the Spencer Museum's Kress Gallery.

-- Jan Biles' phone message number is 832-7146. Her e-mail address is

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