Robert Motherwell’s contributions to the field of Abstract Expressionism indelibly altered the course of Post-War art in America. Alongside figures such as William de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock, Motherwell is regarded for his grit and vigor as a painter as well as his intellect as a scholar. Before deciding to become a painter Motherwell studied philosophy at Stanford and Harvard where he cultivated a method of thought and feeling that would perpetuate his painterly meditations for the rest of his life. Two principle philosophies provided the guiding light for Motherwell’s practice—a belief in the power of abstraction and a belief in the power of feeling. It was a lifelong effort of Motherwell’s to fuse abstraction and feeling, while also imbuing abstraction with meaning. He searched for meaning in his work with the ambition and faith of a poet, chasing the impassioned, the epic, and the monumental.
Motherwell painted August Sea No. 3 in 1972, a year that is particularly remembered for and flavored by an interest in poetry and experimentation. That year Motherwell worked on a series of illustrations inspired by the poems of Rafael Alberti and published the resulting book Livre de Peintre, A la Pintura. In the midst of travel for creative collaborations, publishing projects, and lectures and seminars, Motherwell also found himself in the middle of change in his personal life. After his marriage to fellow painter Helen Frankenthaler had dissolved in 1969, he married photographer Renate Ponsold in 1972, hired Lawrence Rubin as his new dealer, and began experimenting with lithography and etching techniques. While a mindset of change and exploration pushed Motherwell’s growth in the early 1970s, the themes and traditions which lay at the heart of Motherwell’s aesthetic still thrived, namely his work on the Open series, which he began in 1967, and the tradition of spending summer months in his quiet barn studio in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he was prolific and inspired.
It was in Provincetown that Motherwell first explored the concept of the ocean in his work and produced his Beside the Sea series, consisting of more than 60 small paintings on paper inspired by the way that waves would break at high tide against the sea wall. The motion of the waves prompted a new and unique process for Motherwell, as he turned to an increasingly spontaneous, instinctive, and automatic working method that relied on intuitive gesture and motion-driven brushwork. Motherwell would load his brush with paint then vigorously whip the brush onto the flat canvas, an exercise in force against resistance that created visually striking images paralleling the same kind of slapping motion of sea waves against the bulkhead. Following Beside the Sea, Motherwell devoted himself to what he called the Open series for many years. The seminal Open paintings consisted of flat color field backgrounds on top of which Motherwell drew three charcoal lines, usually in the shape of an open ‘U.’ These paintings often referenced elements that Motherwell saw in his natural surroundings, such as a door or window. Thus, color and line were not arbitrarily abstract, but rather metaphorically suggestive.
August Sea No. 3 from 1972 is a brilliant synthesis of Motherwell’s Beside the Sea and Open series, incorporating lively brushwork and a concern for open color field with linear disruptions suggesting the natural world. The blue expanse in August Sea No. 3 is energized and alive, full of gestural washes and texture that evinces a lyrical spirit. Within the blue there are patches of lighter, faded paint washes and moments of heavier paint application in stains and pools of darker, concentrated blue. The evidence of variation and labor in Motherwell’s brushwork activates this piece as an atmospheric space for silence and intimate contemplation. Unlike the typical three-part ‘U’ lines in the Opens, August Sea No. 3 is marked by only two black lines, with a horizontal line jutting across the center of the painting to be met in askew perpendicular fashion by a vertical line extending from the top of the composition. Above the horizontal line, Motherwell has dotted the canvas in rich sea green with an expressive flick of the wrist that feels overwhelmingly poetic, returning the painting to real world symbolism that resonates with the seaside influences of Provincetown. The significance of Provincetown and the passion and energy Motherwell felt there is remembered by his daughter, Lise, who recalls her father working late at night and into the early hours of the morning in his studio. His nighttime childhood asthma attacks had left him with odd habits and fears of sleep, and painting had always provided solace during the night. Lise reflects: “Some mornings, he would come downstairs, his clothes disheveled, his hair uncombed, while my sister and I sat at breakfast in bathing suits ready for the beach. He would say with a big smile, ‘I painted a masterpiece last night’” (Exh. Cat., Provincetown Art Association and Museum, Robert Motherwell: Beside the Sea, 2012, n.p.).
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