Lot 24
  • 24

Robert Motherwell

2,800,000 - 3,500,000 USD
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  • Robert Motherwell
  • Elegy to the Spanish Republic #122
  • signed with the initials and dated 72; signed, titled, dated 1972 and dedicated for Monique and Lee Eastman on the reverse
  • oil, charcoal and graphite on canvas
  • 55 3/4 x 76 in. 141.6 x 193 cm.
  • This work will be included in the forthcoming Catalogue RaisonnĂ© of Paintings and Collages by Robert Motherwell currently being prepared by the Dedalus Foundation.


Mr. and Mrs. Lee V. Eastman (acquired from the artist)
Christie's, New York, November 8, 2005, Lot 22
Acquired by the present owner from the above


Storrs, University of Connecticut, William Benton Museum of Art, Robert Motherwell & Black, March - June 1979, cat. no. 58, p. 92, illustrated (in the exhibition gallery)


This painting is in excellent condition. Please contact the Contemporary Art department at 212-606-7254 for the condition report prepared by Terrence Mahon. The canvas is framed in an antique style wood frame painted black with gold edges approximately 5 inches wide.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Robert Motherwell was the youngest of the protagonists in the epic tale of the Abstract Expressionist movement in New Yorkin the 1940s and 1950s, yet he would become one of its most eloquent theoreticians and create one of its most indelible archetypal compositions with his deeply moving series of Spanish Elegies. Motherwell was a young man of twenty-one when the horrors of the Spanish Civil War commenced in 1936, unleashing a three year struggle of tragic proportions that took the lives of over 700,000 people and witnessed history’s first air-raid bombings of civilians that inspired Pablo Picasso’s haunting and shattering masterpiece Guernica of 1937. Beginning in 1949 with his first large painting in the Elegy to the Spanish Republic series titled Granada, Motherwell would go on to paint a grand cycle of canvases evocative of his belief in the potency of aesthetic symbolism and the emotive authority of painting in the 20th century. Elegy to the Spanish Republic #122is undeniable testimony that Motherwell’s series never lost its deep expressive faculty as each intrinsic component of the composition – the classic ovals and columns as well as the juxtaposition of black and white – grew in sophistication and cogent graphic sensibility to stand as testaments to modern art’s cathartic role in humanity’s confrontation with the harsh realities of society.

Elegy to the Spanish Republic #122 exhibits the monumentality and architectonic structure that is the framework on which Motherwell staged his commemorations of the human suffering of modern man. The stark black and white of the ever-present ovals are redolent with allusions that range widely from classical ruins to calligraphic wall writing to male anatomy. The surging verticals and horizontals in stark contrasts of elemental black and white, here heightened with earthy warm ochre, emphasize the elegiac and poetic nature of Motherwell’s canon. Explosively confrontational in its forceful presence, the black ovals and columns march across the white void. One of the masters of collage of the 20th century, Motherwell used both sketches and collages to intuitively devise his compositions and to activate the spatial dimensions of his picture plane. The use of paint splatters and rough edges, were also born from his work in collage, adding energy and expression to Elegy to the Spanish Republic #122 and its sister paintings. The disintegrating edges of the black ovals stand out starkly against the vivid white, just as vibrant white notational strokes hover round the curving edges of the black verticals. Form and color conspire together to convey a tension between order and chaos that is a veritable touchstone for abstract art of the period and places Motherwell in the company of the philosophers, poets, painters and social critics who were his friends and compatriots in seeking to use abstract art and poetic symbolism to convey the inexorable cycle of life and death. As H. H. Arnason wrote in his groundbreaking text on Motherwell’s work, “Despite the high degree of sophistication evident in Motherwell’s work, the overriding effect of many of them is that of primitive force, something atavistic in the most highly urbanized of modern man. …The Elegies have always been concerned with the expression of this element of the savage in the human soul.  However, in most of these the suggestion of the barbaric has been held in control by the architectural structure of the forms, as in mankind it is held in control by the social suppression of civilization.” (H. H. Arnason, Robert Motherwell, New York, 1982, p. 63)

Motherwell was a student of both philosophy and art history, deeply conversant in modernist thought and widely read in the symbolist literature of Stéphane Mallarmé, James Joyce and Octavio Paz among others. Like many of his fellow Abstract Expressionists, Motherwell was particularly inspired by the Symbolist poet Mallarmé’s premise that a poem – and by extension any creative form – should not represent a specific event, object or idea but rather capture and convey the emotive essence of it. In Elegy to the Spanish Republic #122, Motherwell’s abstract motif liberated his oeuvre, allowing him to engage in an abstract mode that nevertheless referenced concepts and ontological metaphysics, rendering his ultimate subject the very nature of existence. “I take an elegy to be a funeral lamentation or funeral song for something one cared about….  They are as eloquent as I could make them.  But the pictures are also general metaphors of the contract between life and death and their interrelation.” (Robert Motherwell, Smith College, January 1963)

Motherwell’s allusions to human mortality and soulful elevation – indeed the very dialectic of life’s vicissitudes – is most strongly imparted to the viewer through the warm encompassing blacks and bright whites of the Spanish Elegies, particularly the mature works of the 1970s such as Elegy to the Spanish Republic #122. As Jack Flam wrote in the catalogue for Motherwell’s 1984-1985 travelling retrospective, “Black and white have been Robert Motherwell’s main colors for over thirty years now; the chromatic bedrock of his image-making. And this underlying dialectic of black and white – graphic, stark and reductive – has allowed Motherwell to achieve an art of absolutes without having had to limit the play of his inventive mind to a single (absolute) image, and an art of pure abstraction without having had to reject the notion of subject matter. …The dialogue of black and white forms the basis not only of Motherwell’s pictorial structure, but also of the implied subject matter that he, unlike most abstract artists, has continuously been willing to accept. ‘Black is death, anxiety; white is life, éclat,’ Motherwell has said of his Spanish Elegies.”  (Exh. Cat., Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery and travelling, Robert Motherwell, 1984, p. 10)