Lot 162
  • 162

Robert Motherwell

900,000 - 1,200,000 USD
Log in to view results
bidding is closed


  • Robert Motherwell
  • Red, Cut by Black
  • signed, titled and dated 1966-67 on the reverse
  • oil and acrylic on canvas
  • 82 by 114 in. 208.3 by 289.5 cm.


M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York (acquired directly from the artist in 1985)
Private Collection, Dallas (acquired from the above in 1985)
Private Collection, Florida
Sotheby's, New York, May 10, 2006, lot 58
Private Collection


New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New Acquisitions, May 1985
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., Group Show, June - August 1985


Jack Flam, Katy Rogers and Tim Clifford, eds., Robert Motherwell Paintings and Collages: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991, Vol. 2: Paintings on Canvas and Panel, New Haven, 2012, cat. no. P372, p. 210, illustrated in color


This work is in very good condition overall. The surface and colors are bright, fresh and clean. There is evidence of light wear and handling along the edges. In the center of the canvas, there is a faint horizontal impression from the stretcher bar, which is visible under raking light. There are some light and scattered red and white media accretions. There is a 10 inch horizontal line along the top center of the canvas and a 1 inch circular spot at the top center, both of which fluoresce darkly under Ultraviolet light inspection and appear to be the result of restoration. Both spots are barely perceptible to detect under raking light. Framed.
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

"The 'pure' red of which certain abstractionists speak does not exist. Any red is rooted in blood, glass, wine, hunters' caps and a thousand other concrete phenomena. Otherwise we would have no feeling toward red and its relations..." - Robert Motherwell

Robert Motherwell was the youngest member of the New York School of Abstract Expressionist painters, a group that included Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock. His humanist approach to art, affinity for literature, and passion for writing made him the unofficial spokesperson for the movement. Unlike many of his peers, he had an extensive formal education, studying painting at the California School of Fine Arts, literature and philosophy at Stanford and Harvard, and art history at Columbia. His pictorial language took the form of drawings, collages, prints, and paintings ranging from intimate studies to monumental works on canvas. 

Motherwell created a body of work of astonishing depth and diversity over the course of five decades. His work engages with a wide variety of approaches to abstraction, ranging from severe monochrome to intense coloration, from organic to more geometric compositions. Across this stylistic breadth, Motherwell combined his deft command of expressive brushwork with a rigorous structure, frequently alluding to literature and politics. Motherwell took pride in being a part of the lineage of modern painting, and embraced in his work the influence of Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso. Of equal interest were Asian traditions of painting, drawing, and calligraphy; he also profited from the diverse ideologies of European artists living in New York in refuge from World War II, particularly the Surrealists Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, and Roberto Matta. From them, he learned the concept of “psychic automatism,” a form of drawing in which the artist allows an unconscious, spontaneous impulse to lead the way. Motherwell used the technique with great success in developing his own brand of abstraction.

Motherwell is a painter of series–throughout his career, a relatively small number of compositional starting points or subject matters intrigued him and he explored the possibilities within each one. As a highly visible and well-respected member of the Abstract Expressionist movement, he adhered to and excelled in the movement's core stylistic value: conveying emotion through process, generally by non-representational means. Motherwell asserted that his work is an art of subjects, his paintings come out of life and feed back into it; in no sense are they pure abstractions that merely decorate.

Red, Cut by Black offers an abstract rhythm of loose geometry. The horizontal format and black rectangular shapes compartmentalize the canvas into varying proportions and color saturations, as can be most clearly seen in the lower portion of the canvas. This work testifies to Motherwell’s bold experiments with color, in part prompted by the impact of Color Field painting in the 1960s. Motherwell spent part of his youth in California, and in these canvases he returns to memories of the region's bright colors and expansive spaces.

Motherwell eschewed the facile impact of wildly expressive brushstrokes in this work in favor of a bold, and sophisticated hard-edged composition that moves towards the classical. Each element is carefully weighted and balanced against one another from the tension of forms to the painterly quality. The work resists any single interpretation as part of its strength. There is something spontaneous about the black forms and shapes, while simultaneously exacting, as suggested by the painting’s title Red, Cut by Black.

This painting is unique in its position situated within Motherwell’s oeuvre as it was created in between his two major series and retains influences of both. The artist’s earlier works entitled the Elegies are amongst the most recognizable paintings to emerge from Abstract Expressionism. Their central motif involves hauntingly repeated black vertical bars and ovoid shapes, which assert themselves powerfully and formally, expressing great emotion. Somewhat contrastingly, his mature series, beginning in 1967/68, entitled the Open paintings, consist of broad color fields, whose only additional feature is an incomplete rectangle or trapezoid that resembles a window or door. These works clearly reference architecture, yet the Elegies are more ambiguous, their barbaric forms presenting an incredibly elastic pictorial language that communicates on multiple levels and eludes easy resolution. The archetypal shapes of this series are rich in associations, exemplifying Motherwell's belief in the efficacy of simple configurations and truly felt gestures to carry and release his most profound emotions. The present work incorporates components of both of these series.

Rather than seek to break as much as possible from the past, as say Jackson Pollock was attempting, Motherwell was well-schooled in modernism and saw his work as part of the art historical dialogue, particularly with Matisse. Like Matisse, Motherwell's work always has an underlying elegance and a delicate balance, no matter how raw and powerful the gesture. With Red, Cut by Black, Motherwell discovered an incredibly elastic pictorial language that would communicate on multiple levels but also eludes easy resolution.