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Contemporary Art

Robert Motherwell's Emotive Series Illuminates the Universal

By Sotheby's
Robert Motherwell's Elegy Study No. XIII , 1976–1979, is a highlight of the upcoming Contemporary Art Evening Auction (16 May, New York) and comes from the Blema and H. Arnold Steinberg Collection.

"A n elegy is a form of mourning . . . lyrical in the sense of an outpouring, black in the sense of death, just as white, which contains all colors, represents life." So said the 20th century artist, Robert Motherwell, in reference to his series of paintings Elegies to the Spanish Republic.

Robert Motherwell, Elegy Study No. XIII, 1976-79. Estimate $1,500,000–2,000,000.
Robert Motherwell, Elegy Study No. XIII, 1976-79. Estimate $1,500,000–2,000,000.

A superb example of these works, Elegy Study No. XIII acts as a window to Motherwell's artistic method; a careful practice that art historian Jack Flam once described as:

[Motherwell] wanted to create an art that would deal with the universal rather than the specific, yet be charged with intuitive feeling; that would be true to its medium, be quintessentially what it was physically, yet also evoke powerful reverberations beyond its mere physical appearance.

Painted nearly forty-years after Motherwell created the first Elegy, Elegy Study No. XIII bears witness to immeasurable hours of deliberation, revision, and reconsideration. Elegies to the Spanish Republic references the Spanish Civil War, an event that Flam writes:

Had enormous importance for members of Motherwell’s generation. It was understood to be a prelude to World War II, and also part of a larger struggle between good and evil, between civilization and destructive violence.

A masterpiece of abstraction, Elegy Study No. XIII is composed of black verticals and organic, oval-like forms with compelling delicacy. To further reduce the painting to “a basic pictorial language,” Motherwell employs the simplest combination of colors: black and white. Once hailed by Clement Greenberg to be “the very best of the Abstract Expressionist painters,” Motherwell’s canvas is universally accessible. As the artist has introspectively stated "I think that one’s art is just one’s effort to wed oneself to the universe, to unify oneself through union."

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