Lot 120
  • 120

Robert Motherwell

700,000 - 1,000,000 USD
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  • Robert Motherwell
  • August Sea No. 3
  • signed with the artist's initials and dated 72; signed, titled and dated 1972 on the reverse
  • acrylic and charcoal on canvas
  • 72 by 36 in. 182.9 by 91.4 cm.


Gertrude Kasle Gallery, Detroit
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1997 


Detroit, Getrude Kasle Gallery, Robert Motherwell: Paintings and Collages, December 1972 - January 1973, cat. no. 3
Rochester, Oakland University, Meadow Brook Art Gallery, Creative Encounters: Gertrude Kasle Collection of Contemporary Art, October - November 1976, cat. no. 29


Joy Hakanson, "Motherwell's Terse 'Intensity,'" Sunday News (Detroit), 10 December 1972, sec. E, p. 4, illustrated (incorrectly titled)
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. P669, p. 341, illustrated in color


This work is in very good condition overall. There is evidence of light wear and handling along the edges, including a few minor areas of rubbing along the top and left edges that have led to minor spots of loss. The colors are bright, fresh and clean. Under very close inspection a few scattered light brown spot accretions are visible, presumably varnish from the artist's studio from the time of execution. Under Ultraviolet light inspection, a 3-inch horizontal linear abrasion from the lower left edge fluoresces but does not appear to be the result of restoration, and a ¾-inch linear spot along the bottom left edge fluoresces darkly and may have benefited from light retouching. 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 Motherwell blue' I use, in fact, many blues. If there is a blue that one might call mine, it is simply a blue that feels warm, that cannot be accounted for chemically or technically, but only as a state of mind."

Robert Motherwell

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.).