A noted photographer herself, Renate Ponsold moved from her native Germany to New York in the 1950s and immediately fell into step with the intelligentsia of the Greenwich Village and Cedar Tavern milieu that included Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and David Smith. With her sharp wit, infectious smile and intellectual prowess that could rival that of Clement Greenberg, Renate became an essential member of this famed artistic scene and attended its most exclusive events. In 1959, at the launch party for Harold Rosenberg’s groundbreaking critique, Tradition of the New, Renate met Philip Guston who would remain a close friend until his death in 1980. Mark Rothko even accompanied Renate to a Costume Institute gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Renate first glimpsed her future husband, Robert Motherwell. But it wasn’t until October 18, 1971 that Renate was formally introduced to Motherwell at a cocktail party at publisher Charles Cowles’ apartment. The pair soon became inseparable, marrying on August 16, 1972. Renate joined Motherwell at his newly refurbished carriage house in Greenwich that featured multiple working studios for Robert—including one for Renate’s own photography.
Enamored with his wife, Robert Motherwell constantly showered Renate with gifts of his own work. Any holiday, anniversary or special event was an opportunity to express his demonstrable love for her. Seen on the pages that follow, Renate’s collection of works by her late husband serve as an anthology of the artist’s most successful and iconic series: Open paintings and masterful collages, all highlighted by their loving dedications to Renate on their versos. His inclination to gift his wife with such treasures certainly stems from a historical practice of artists acquiring works by other artists. Indeed, each work in the collection is imbued with a particular backstory that further serves as evidence of the great artistic forces at play in New York’s postwar era. Cy Twombly’s Klu was a gift to Motherwell, Twombly’s teacher and mentor at the renowned Black Mountain College in North Carolina, after Motherwell helped secure Twombly’s first two-man exhibition at the Kootz Gallery in 1951. Similarly, David Smith composed a lyrical work on paper as a memento of gratitude after a visit to Motherwell’s Provincetown home or perhaps an overnight stay at his East 94th Street home. Lastly, Max Ernst insisted that Motherwell keep the plaster cast for his sculpture Le Roi jouant avec la reine after Motherwell spent the summer of 1944 in Amagansett, preparing for his solo exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery, the epicenter of Surrealism in America. Motherwell safeguarded the plaster work until receiving a letter from collector Jean de Menil on March 17, 1972, in which de Menil insisted that a bronze cast replace Motherwell’s plaster piece. The bronze version was delivered to Motherwell’s Greenwich home in December 1972, where it was prominently installed on the second floor of the Motherwells’ home and remained for nearly 45 years.
The selection of works in Robert Motherwell and Renate Ponsold Motherwell’s collection provides rare and tangible insight to a generation of painters and sculptors that shaped the trajectory of art history in the 20th century. The generation of artists included in the collection was known for their camaraderie with one another and each work is archetypal of each artist’s unique vision. The Private Collection of Robert and Renate Ponsold Motherwell presents a life lived not just with one’s art, but thoroughly ensconced within it.
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