ASE art writer Sharon Lorenzo reports on Robert Motherwell: Early Collages at the Guggenheim Museum, New York.

September 27, 2013 to January 5, 2014

We know that this exhibition is over but we love Sharon’s reports and have kept this in our archives.


A Recalibration of Motherwell: Attaching Form to Feeling

The early work on paper by the American artist Robert Motherwell is on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York until January of the new year. This small show is a gem that allows the public to see the work of an artist who became a leader of the Abstract Expressionist movement in his later years. Schooled at Stanford, Columbia and Harvard Universities, Motherwell was a serious intellectual who led his peers in the pursuit of a new vision following the war years. It was in New York that he came in contact with Peggy Guggenheim and her patronage then and now through her foundation is still leading the charge in the exhibition of America art.


Noted art historian, Angelica Rudenstine, wrote that friendship, patronage, stimulus and promotion were all components of Peggy Guggenheim’s manifold generosity to artist Robert Motherwell, as she was the diva of the New York art scene of the 1940s. [1] As a tribute to its founding patron, this exhibition traveled first to her Foundation in Venice, Italy and then to New York. Generously assisted in this tour by the Terra Foundation of Chicago which promotes the dissemination of American art world wide, both Dan Terra and Peggy Guggenheim would have reveled in this show of the early works of Robert Motherwell and his embrace of the collage medium.

One of the finest art history classes I ever had was with an American art historian who asked us each class, “Tell me about their friends- I want to know the artist’s pals so we can look at the stylistic drift from one artist to another.” The essays that accompany this show highlight the importance of the years between the world wars when New York was flooded with art émigrés from Europe and South America. Motherwell was befriended by the likes of Roberto Matta from Chile, Joan Miro from Spain, and Piet Mondrian from France to name but a few. Motherwell became acquainted with the work of Pablo Picasso and Jean Arp and by the fall of 1944, he had done enough work on paper that Peggy Guggenheim mounted a one man show for him in her gallery called Art of the Century in New York. [2]

Following his undergraduate studies at Stanford University, Motherwell read the works of Jung, Freud and Andre Breton which brought him to new thematic discoveries about art at Columbia University. Art critic, James Johnson Sweeney, wrote that Motherwell was an authentic artist whose process, sources and effectiveness showed a tension between the logic of pictorial expression and the visual reality of his world.[3] The early collages in this show reveal how Motherwell adapted his medium of collage into expressions of his personal life and travels to Mexico, Europe, and the art studios of his peers in New York. In the summer of 1941 Robert Motherwell took a trip to Mexico with Roberto Matta and his wife, Anne. They witnessed first hand the local response to the bloody remnants of the Mexican Revolution that mirrored world suffering in the European front during World War II.  Motherwell’s work from this era references blood stained bandages and war maps. He noted in interviews from this period, “The War was on everyone’s mind”:


(Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive, Oil and ink on paper, 1943, Museum of Modern Art)

While teaching at the Black Mountain College of Asheville, North Carolina in the summer of 1945, Robert Motherwell explained to his students some of his techniques and his use of various papers, glues and abrasive blinders.  Examining all these works for aging and condition, the Guggenheim paper conservator, Jeffrey Warda noted that the tearing of Japanese rice paper had produced the jagged edges in some of these collages. Secrets sauces of shellac binders and fish glue mixed with gouache paint and rhodamine dyes are just some of the details Warda found in these complex assemblages.  He noted in the catalogue that modern conservation techniques can now stay the aging of these works on paper.[4]


(Montauk Montage, 1946-47 Oil and paper on board. Caroline and Stephen Adler, New York.)

Curiously we can also see in these early collages some of the fluid ideas that would emerge later in Motherwell’s works in oil on canvas.  Devoid of text or form, the new paintings took up where these paper  works of Motherwell left off, exploring the very basics of artistic creativity in color, shape, form and balance later known as the era of Abstract Expressionism. In one collage now owned by Kate Rothko Prizel and her brother Christopher, we see the orange paint on paperboard as a brilliant antecedent to her father’s absorption in such color and forms in his own oil canvases.


(The Poet, 1947, Oil and Pastel on Japanese paper, Collection of Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko)

With the recent forgeries discovered by the FBI of both Motherwell and Rothko’s oil paintings, we are thankful for the authenticity of these early works by Robert Motherwell in which we see his clear contribution to American art in the formative years of the 1940s. This kind of small exhibition is an example of the rich gift that an institution like the Guggenheim Museum can bring to the public, as through this show we come to understand some of the pillars of modern art.

Robert Motherwell: Early Collages at the Guggenheim at:

[1] Richard Armstrong and Philip Rylands, Robert Motherwell: Early Collages, Guggenheim Foundation, New York: 2013, p.7.

[2] Ibid, Susan Davidson, p. 8.

[3] Ibid, p. 23.

[4]  Ibid, Jeffrey Warda, p, 57.