Painted nearly forty years after Motherwell produced the first Elegy, Elegy Study No. XIII bears witness to the end result of immeasurable hours of deliberation, revision, and reconsideration that distinguish the very best of these singularly iconic paintings. The title of the series makes reference to the Spanish Civil War, which Jack Flam writes: “had enormous importance for members of Motherwell’s generation. It was understood to be a prelude to World War II, and also part of a larger struggle between good and evil, between civilization and destructive violence.” (Jack Flam, Katy Rogers, and Tim Clifford, Motherwell: 100 Years, New York, 2015, p. 118) At once deeply individual and universally accessible, Motherwell’s gestural abstraction in Elegy Study No. XIII provides form to his innermost feelings—central tenets of the New York School artists’ output. So prodigious was Motherwell’s ability to convey his personal philosophies and emotions through non-representational form, that Clement Greenberg, one of the most celebrated critics of the twentieth century, hailed him as “the very best of the Abstract Expressionist painters.” (Grace Glueck, “Robert Motherwell, Master of Abstract, Dies,” The New York Times, 18 July, 1991) Elegy Study XIII ultimately allows Motherwell to connect with the great dramas of the world, while also allowing viewers to glean insight into his psyche. In meditating on his philosophy of art, Motherwell wrote: “I think that one’s art is just one’s effort to wed oneself to the universe, to unify oneself through union.” (The artist cited in Jack Flam, Motherwell: 100 Years, New York, 2015, p. 22)
Elegy Study No. XIII pulses with rhythmic energy; it swells with an arresting timbre. Its cadence embodies Motherwell’s reflection that he has “always been spellbound by drumrolls—the contrast between the clear rolling sound and the period of silence.” (The artist cited in Exh. Cat., New York, Dominique Lévy, Robert Motherwell: Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 2015, p. 6) Within the bold forms of the present work, Motherwell produces a regular beat of long, steady vertical tones, interrupted only by the robust bursts of black pigment. These flourishes of unbridled expression swirl and drip, resounding with virtuosic tenor. Unlike other Elegy works, in which Motherwell presents a strict division between sound and silence by placing the black elements against a stark white background, Elegy Study No. XIII reveals a nuanced backdrop of hushed gray tones and bright white strokes. As such, the ebb and flow of Elegy Study No. XIII is not one of sound versus silence; rather, it is a complex symphony, wherein the web of white and gray brushstrokes supports the dominant strand of black elements. The painterly texture of these supporting tones warms the overall composition—demonstrating Dore Ashton’s assertion that “to be elegiac is not necessarily to be heavy...It is in the musicality...that the structures of the Elegy series can alter the inherent meanings.” (Dore Ashton in Exh. Cat., Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Robert Motherwell, 1983, pp. 40-41) As a whole, the various structures and cadences of Motherwell’s Elegies “furnish the depth and grandeur of an essentially lyric polyphonic work.” (Marcelin Pleynet, Robert Motherwell, Paris, 1989, p. 31)
At once lyrical and unruly, meditative and demanding, the compelling abstraction of Elegy Study No. XIII draws viewers in towards a consideration of the fundamental qualities of the human condition. Despite the Elegy series' historically specific allusion to the Spanish Civil War, Jack Flam explains that Motherwell “wanted to create an art that would deal with the universal rather than the specific, yet be charged with intuitive feeling; that would be true to its medium, be quintessentially what it was physically, yet also evoke powerful reverberations beyond its mere physical appearance.” (Jack Flam, Katy Rogers, and Tim Clifford, Motherwell: 100 Years, New York, 2015, p. 25) Unencumbered by figuration, Elegy Study No. XIII communicates feeling through the universal language of gesture. There is a palpable physicality to the present work; viewers can sense the movement of paint across its surface—its flicks, its accumulations, and its layering. To further reduce Elegy Study No. XIII to “a basic pictorial language,” Motherwell employs the simplest combination of colors: black and white. (The artist cited in Ibid., p. 121) The swashes and skeins of black pigment, and the cloudiness of the background’s white texture, evoke the somber emotions Motherwell sought to convey. He explained, “An elegy is a form of mourning...lyrical in the sense of an outpouring, black in the sense of death, just as white, which contains all colors, represents life.” (The artist cited in Exh. Cat., New York, Dominique Lévy, Robert Motherwell: Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 2015, p. 102) Achieving an extraordinary embodiment of intense, undeniable poignancy through a basic pictorial language of color and abstract form, Elegy Study No. XIII stands as a lasting testament to Motherwell’s profound achievements in abstraction.
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