Motherwell: Abstraction and Rebellion
As an artist whose own work addresses the violence at the center of American culture and its attendant grief, I admire Robert Motherwell’s consistent commitment to addressing important political themes throughout his career. In his drawings, as in his writings, Motherwell argued that the expressive tools of abstraction were not only valid, but among the most powerful means an artist possesses for fully communicating human experience and feeling, including political events and realities.
At the same time, Motherwell consistently argued against a “political art” that could be reduced to “the anecdotes and propaganda of a discredited social world.” In a series of panel discussions beginning in the late 1940s on the role of the artist and the nature of abstract art, he frequently dueled with Ben Shahn, whose work he felt “contains none of the quality that would seem to me to make one legitimately in rebellion against our society as it is now organized.” Motherwell was wary of politics and its reductionism, writing, “I loathe every form of ideology: politics, religion, aesthetics, domestic relations. I am interested in persons who are independent moral agents.” Despite this, he continued to address political themes and search for an equivalent form for his feelings in and about the world.
Among the works shown in Motherwell’s first solo exhibition in 1944, at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century, was a series of drawings on the theme of “Three Figures Shot.” Nearly eighty years later these images remain immediate and vital. In a 1946 letter, Motherwell characterized them as “‘political,’ a kind of ‘disasters’ series.” And that same year, in a discussion of the 1943 painting Personage (Collection of the Norton Museum of Art, Palm Beach), he wrote that it was originally titled “Dead Personage because it is related to a theme I constantly recur to, of dead (and assassinated) political leaders… [including] the drawing ‘Zapata dead’, belonging to me, [and] several drawings of ‘three personages shot and so on.’” By invoking Goya’s The Disasters of War, which cataloged the horrors of Napoleon’s 1808–14 invasion of Spain, Motherwell argued for his drawings as an equivalent record of twentieth century conflict and its impact on the human figure.
The Redness of Red (1944), an extraordinary ink drawing from this series, was reproduced for the first time in the recent catalogue raisonné of his drawings. In a private collection since the year it was made, the work remains remarkably fresh, with brilliant red, pink, and purple inks showing no fading from light exposure. Set into a geometric lattice recalling Mondrian are three oval “heads” (foreshadowing the ovals of the “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” series). The central head is embedded in a solid frame of colors, and a wash of ink alongside the vertical line below it delineates the neck; and a series of lines on the oval give it dimension. This central form is then splashed with a rivulet of red which has spread and pooled.
Motherwell described this drawing in a letter as one of his “purely abstract” creations. However, the title and iconography clearly link it to his 1942 painting Recuerdo de Coyoacán (Collection of the Dedalus Foundation), which refers to the 1940 assassination of Leon Trotsky in the Mexico City neighborhood of the title. In naming this drawing Redness of Red, Motherwell calls attention to the color’s inherent meaning, contradicting his description of it as “purely abstract.” In a 1946 essay he wrote that:
The pure red of which certain abstractionists speak does not exist, no matter how one shifts its physical contexts. Any red is rooted in blood, glass, wine, hunters’ caps, and a thousand other concrete phenomena. Otherwise, we would have no feeling toward red or its relations, and it would be useless as an artistic element.
Elegy to the Spanish Republic, No. 1 (1948)and nearly a dozen other early drawings in that series from 1948–52, are reproduced in the new catalogue raisonné. Unlike his earlier works, which referred to Pancho Villa, Zapata, or Trotsky, the title “Elegy to the Spanish Republic,” was both less specific and more accurate to his aim. As he himself described it: “The word ‘Elegy’ means a funeral event, a cry of anguish and mourning for something that has died; and in that sense the title is true, the elegy is to the death of the republic, which is an event that I think should not be forgotten.”
Discussions of Motherwell’s work in regard to European modernism or Abstract Expressionism, tend to place its political implications at the end of a line, rather than the start of a new lineage. But in the decades since Motherwell’s death, artists such as Mark Bradford, Maya Lin, Julie Mehretu and Doris Salcedo have continued to employ abstraction as a tool for protest and commemoration, while fulfilling his call for works “legitimately in rebellion against our society as it is now organized.”