Robert Motherwell was a central figure within the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. A lyrical painter, his works celebrate the dynamism of paint itself; they are grand, gestural and heroic. Their value, however, lies more often than not in the economy by which this heroism is achieved. One wonders, when contemplating what I regard as his best works—works such as his Pink Nude with Bowed Head (1958) and Chi Ama, Crede (1962)—how Motherwell knew to stop when he did: to allow this particular balance of disorder and finish.
In general, however, there’s a little too much finesse to almost everything Motherwell did. The spontaneity we tend to associate with Mothewell is often too carefully contrived; there’s a practiced flare that comes across as overly stylized, excessively rehearsed. That’s why the few paintings I admire strike me as so good. They’ve managed to corral the twee sentiment that so many of his paintings unleash toward something somehow more faulty, more contingent and careless—careless enough to make you appreciate its emergence despite all odds.
But these few successes are not what makes Motherwell worth writing about. What makes him worth writing about is the extraordinary role he played as an educator, organizer and publisher within and for the postwar New York scene. Continue reading