The youngest of the Abstract Expressionist painters, Robert Motherwell was just twenty-one years old when the horrors of the Spanish Civil War commenced in 1936. The 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 also served as the impetus for Motherwell’s groundbreaking series of Spanish Elegies, which the artist began in 1949 and continued to paint until his death in 1991. Of the series, Motherwell has stated: “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, “A Conversation at Lunch” address delivered at Smith College, January 1963). As a poignant meditation on life and death, Motherwell’s Elegies have become the artist’s most sought after cycle of works, evocative of his belief in the power of aesthetic symbolism and the emotive authority of painting in the 20th century.
In the Spring of 1965, the United States General Services Administration and Walter Gropius, pioneering architect and founder of the Bauhaus School, approached Motherwell with a proposal to erect a mural in the Gropius-designed John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Boston. Planned as a memorial to the recently assassinated president, the New England Elegy mural took on new meaning when Motherwell’s close friend, David Smith, was killed in a car crash on May 23, 1965. Motherwell had already intended to create a powerfully evocative canvas that would stretch across the vast, raised wall in Gropius’ glassed-in corridor. The loss of his dear friend only served to further his creative productivity. Indeed, New England Elegy and the six subsequent paintings in the series (including the present New England Elegy No. 3) present the first instance in which Motherwell employed a different compositional structure for an Elegy painting, deviating from the ovoid-and-vertical-column compositions that had come to define his Elegy series. With the New England Elegy, Motherwell created a powerfully evocative canvas, capable of moving a viewer deeply as they traversed through the coldly impersonal corridor of the JFK Federal Building, a juxtaposition that only enhanced the ability of the painting to communicate.
The present work, New England Elegy No. 3, is constructed in a highly architectonic fashion. The influence of the postcard of Rhodesian ruins that Motherwell hung in his studio in 1966 is keenly evident: the surging vertical and thrusting horizontal elements evoke the structure of classical architecture. This evocation of a ruined temple further emphasizes the elegiac nature of the work. Echoing the form of a mausoleum, the black calligraphic lines explode across the canvas, moving across the white void as the column rises from the temple floor.
The use of paint splatters and rough edges, born from his work and inspiration found in collage, adds energy and expression to the work. The black and white tonality creates a somber mood, relieved by the bright splash of green, seemingly caught within the massive architecture of the bold lines, held down by the jutting diagonal lines. The green organic form contrasts sharply with the architectural structure, creating a tension between order and chaos. Motherwell’s deft handling of a reduced color palette illustrates the artist’s mastery of a forceful graphic sensibility that stands as a testament to modern art’s cathartic role in humanity’s confrontation with the harsh realities of society. H.H. Arnason eloquently sums up this intrinsic quality to Motherwell’s Elegies, stating, “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).
Through pure abstraction, Motherwell would suggest or evoke feeling–he did not believe that things needed to be described in order to successfully resonate with an audience. New England Elegy No. 3 displays Motherwell’s innate ability to explore the capacity of abstract art to so eloquently express tragedy, violence and a somber, elegiac feeling. A deceptively simplified work, New England Elegy No. 3, perfectly illustrates the power of abstraction as it teeters between rawness and elegance, brutality and refinement.
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