The mid-1960s proved to be a pivotal moment for Motherwell; in September 1965, he was honored with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which subsequently travelled to Europe, bringing his particular vision of abstraction to a new audience. Motherwell had just completed a series of ‘automatic’ pictures in ink on Japanese rice paper, inspiration that can be seen in the present work through the bold use of calligraphic line. Following these ‘automatic pictures,’ Motherwell embarked on his Open Series, a body of work distinguished by its reflective nature as the artist assessed his career. Bright crimson pulses across the monumental canvas in a richly-saturated swath of color; through this red sea, a black blade runs across the length of the painting and evokes the descriptive title Red, Cut by Black. Like Mark Rothko, Motherwell felt particularly struck by the color red and its power to evoke a variety of emotions; in the artist’s own words: “The pure red of which certain abstractionists speak does not exist, no matter how one shifts its physical contexts. Any red is rooted in blood, glass, wine, hunters’ caps, and a thousand other concrete phenomena. Otherwise, we would have no feeling toward red or its relations, and it would be useless as an artistic element.” (The artist quoted in Dore Ashton, ed., The Writings of Robert Motherwell, Berkley, 2007, p. 55) The dynamic prolongation of wide black strokes acts both like a color block and a chasm separating the passages of red, creating a tension and rhythmic energy that swells with an arresting timbre.
In the final lines of a letter to Frank O’Hara written in August 1965, just months before he embarked on this ambitious painting, Motherwell recalled a conversation with peer Barnett Newman: “Barnett Newman for years has said that when he reads my writings, he learns what I have been reading, but when he wants to know what I am really concerned with at a given moment, he looks at my pictures. He’s right.” (The artist quoted in O’Hara, Op. Cit., p. 70) At once lyrical and unruly, meditative and demanding, the compelling and forceful abstraction of Red, Cut by Black draws viewers in towards a consideration of the fundamental qualities of the human condition.
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