Lot 35
  • 35

ROBERT MOTHERWELL | Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 134

9,000,000 - 12,000,000 USD
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  • Robert Motherwell
  • Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 134
  • signed and dated 74; numbered #134 on the reverse
  • acrylic and charcoal on canvas
  • 96 1/4 by 120 1/4 in. 244.5 by 305.4 cm.


Mr. and Mrs. Graham Gund, Cambridge
Christie's New York, May 3, 1989, Lot 31
Jay Chiat, New York
Acquavella Contemporary Art, New York
Sotheby's New York, May 14, 1998, Lot 29
Acquired by the present owner from the above


Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; and Edinburgh, Royal Scottish Academy, Robert Motherwell: Choix de peintures et de collages 1941-1977, June - November 1977, n.p. (text) (as Elegy No. 134
London, Royal Academy of Arts, Robert Motherwell: Paintings and Collages from 1941 to Present, January - March 1978, p. 21, no. 38, illustrated 
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, A Private Vision: Contemporary Art from the Graham Gund Collection, February - April 1982, p. 62, illustrated
Portland, Portland Museum of Art, Great Hall Exhibition, May - September 1984 
Tokyo, Sezon Museum of Art; Nagoya, Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art; and Hiroshima, Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, June - November 1996, pp. 128-129, no. 42, illustrated


Malcolm Quantrill, "London," Art International 22, March 1978, p. 48
H. H. Arnason, Robert Motherwell, New York, 1982, p. 209, no. 293, illustrated in color (in the artist's studio, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1977)
Karen Wilkin, David Smith, New York, 1984, p. 104, no. 121, illustrated (in incorrect orientation)
Peter Clothier, "Jay Chiat: Order and Mystery," Artnews 89, May 1990, pp. 113-114, illustrated in color (in installation at the home of Jay Chiat)
David Kusin, "Abstract Painter Robert Motherwell Dies of Stroke at 76," Dallas Times Herald, July 18, 1991, p. A4 (text)
Exh. Cat., Barcelona, Fundació Antoni Tàpies (and travelling), Motherwell, 1996, p. 330, illustrated (in the artist's studio, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1977)
Annette Tapert,"Designer's Own Homes: Joanne De Guardiola," Architectural Digest, September 2000, pp. 240-241, illustrated in color (in installation)
"Designer Secrets: Joanne De Guardiola," Architectural Digest, January 2006, p. 109, illustrated in color (in installation)
Jack Flam, Katy Rogers, and Tim Clifford, Robert Motherwell Paintings and Collages: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991, Volume One: Essays and References, New Haven and London, 2012, p. 157, p. 236, and p. 239, illustrated in color (in the artist's studio, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1977)
Jack Flam, Katy Rogers, and Tim Clifford, Robert Motherwell Paintings and Collages: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991, Volume Two: Paintings on Canvas and Panel, New Haven and London, 2012, pp. 407-408, no. P821, illustrated in color
Jack Flam, Katy Rogers, and Tim Clifford, Motherwell: 100 Years, Milan, p. 130, no. 131, illustrated in color (in progress in the studio)

Catalogue Note

Harnessing immense gestural dynamism and tremendous painterly force, Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 134 from 1974 stands as a paradigmatic example of Robert Motherwell’s most acclaimed body of work, his revered Elegies. On par with Barnett Newman’s zips and Jackson Pollock’s drips for their revolutionary contribution to art history, the Elegies also comprise Motherwell’s most extensive series; Motherwell executed over 140 paintings in this motif, beginning in 1948 and up until his death in 1991. Despite the exhaustiveness of his investigation into this iconic abstract motif, Motherwell seldom embarked on a scale as monumental and commanding as the present work; he executed under 40 monumental Elegy paintings over the course of these four decades, over two-thirds of which are in permanent museum collections internationally. The present work is part of a limited suite of seven Elegy paintings (numbered #128 – 134) executed between 1974 and 1975 that measure a staggering 96 by 120 inches, other examples of which belong to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.; the Tate Gallery, London; the Detroit Institute of Arts; and the Pinakotheken, Munich. Intended to be read as a lamentation or funeral song after the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), Motherwell’s Elegies to the Spanish Republic are a lyrical and poetic memorial to the immense human loss and suffering endured during these harrowing years. Defined by their shared compositional structure of black rectangular slabs and compressed ovoid forms set against a white canvas, the canonical import of these monumentally scaled Elegies cannot be overemphasized. Nearly every major museum collection, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art, New York, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others, hold in their permanent collection an Elegy to the Spanish Republic. A masterpiece from one of the defining paragons of Abstract Expressionism whose erudite knowledge of literature, philosophy, and European modernist traditions informed and shaped the pillars of Abstract Expressionism, Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 134 is a painting of profound resilience and enduring resonance. Motherwell was a young student of twenty-one when the horrors of the Spanish Civil War commenced in 1936, and he would later reflect that it was the most “moving political event” of his youth. (Exh. Cat., New York, Dominique Lévy, Robert Motherwell: Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 2015, p. 6) In 1939, the Spanish Civil War concluded with the fall of Spain’s democratically elected socialist government, which was deposed by a fascist coalition led by dictator Francisco Franco, whose dictatorship would persist until 1975. A three-year struggle of tragic proportions, the Spanish Civil War took the lives of over 700,000 people and witnessed history’s first air-raid bombings of civilians. This callous disregard for civilian life, and the innumerable needless deaths that resulted, inspired Pablo Picasso’s haunting and shattering epic Guernica of 1937. Similarly rendered on a massive scale and in a reduced monochrome palette, the similarities between Picasso’s Guernica and Motherwell’s monumental Elegies, such as the present work, are striking. Nearly a decade following the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1948, Motherwell created his first Elegy with a small drawing to accompany a poem by Harold Rosenberg titled Elegy to the Spanish Republic published in the avant-garde periodical Possibilities. Over the next four decades, Motherwell would pursue this same structural and thematic motif relentlessly; taken as a whole, the Elegies confirm the resounding impact that this war had on the young artist, and indeed stand as a powerful monument to the overwhelming loss during and in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Motherwell stated: “I meant the word 'elegy' in the title. I was twenty-one in 1936, when the Spanish Civil War began…The Spanish Civil War was even more to my generation than Vietnam was to be thirty years later to its generation, and should not be forgotten, even though la guerre est finie.” (David Craven in Joan M. Marter, Abstract Expressionism: The International Context, New Brunswick, 2007 p. 76)

Addressing the viewer with monumental frontality, the alternating black ovoid and rectilinear shapes of Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 134 reverberate across the surface, the ovals compressed and distorted by imposing rectangular slabs. Rendered in the renounced monochrome palette characteristic of the Elegies, the present work achieves a volatile yet lyrical equilibrium, the heavy blackness of death finding resolution with the airy whiteness of life, and together both culminating in a deeply somber and emotive composition that finds universal resonance far beyond the reaches of the canvas. Diffusing the overwhelming, architectonic weight of these black forms, the gestural brushwork, roughly painted edges, and paint splatters imbue the weighty composition with a sense of movement and expressionistic energy. Form and color conspire together to convey a tension between order and chaos that is a veritable touchstone for abstract art of the period, and places Motherwell in the company of the philosophers, poets, painters and social critics who were his friends and compatriots in activating abstract art and poetic symbolism as expressions of the inexorable cycle of life and death. Speaking to the resounding import of black and white in his Elegy paintings, Motherwell said: “After a period of painting [the Elegies], I discovered Black as one of my subjects—and with black, the contrasting white, a sense of life and death which to me is quite Spanish. They are essentially the Spanish black of death contrasted with the dazzle of a Matisse-like sunlight.” (William S. Lieberman, Exh. Cat., New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, An American Choice: the Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman Collection, 1981, p. 82) As the recurrent motif of Motherwell’s Elegies, the pictorial symbolism of these ovular slabs has been debated extensively: despite their visual associations with bodies, fruit, phalluses, or even calligraphy, they ultimately evade any specific associations or signifiers in the natural world and instead embody and engender an emotional state, standing as pillars of loss and resilience. In fact, the visual structure of Motherwell’s Elegies speaks more to the influence of Surrealist automatism – especially the work of the Spanish painter Roberto Matta, a close friend of Motherwell’s – and evoke the same potent immediacy, materializing as forms and images the mind already knows on a subconscious level. A masterful articulation of Motherwell’s inimitable artistic philosophy, Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 134 stands as a profoundly illuminating meditation on life and death, desire and lamentation.

Motherwell’s allusions to human mortality and soulful elevation – indeed the very dialectic of life’s vicissitudes – are most strongly imparted to the viewer through the warm encompassing blacks and bright whites of the Spanish Elegies, particularly the mature works of the 1970s such as Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 134. The unequivocal pinnacle of Motherwell’s canonical oeuvre, the sophisticated and cogent graphic sensibility of his Elegies confirms art’s cathartic role in humanity’s confrontation with the harsh realities of the modern era, specifically the unimaginable injustices caused by war and its aftermath. As elegiacally expressed by the artist himself: “I must emphasize that my Elegies to the Spanish Republic are just that, elegies, in the traditional sense… An elegy is a form of mourning, not a call to action, but symbolization of grief, lyrical in the sense on an outpouring, black in the sense of death, just as white, which contains all colors, represents life.” (Robert Motherwell, A Personal Recollection, 1986) Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 134 revels in the infinite dichotomies of its structure, the stark opposition of black against white and the contrasting ovoid and rectilinear forms. These dualities are ultimately an expression of the dialectic nature of life itself, at once comprising the organic and geometric, vitality and bereavement, life and death.