Lot 54
  • 54

ROBERT MOTHERWELL | In Plato's Cave No. 7

200,000 - 300,000 USD
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  • Robert Motherwell
  • In Plato's Cave No. 7
  • acrylic and charcoal on canvas
  • 44 by 61 in. 111.8 by 154.9 cm.
  • Executed in 1973.


Private Collection, New York (acquired directly from the artist in 1974)
Christie’s, New York, 8 May 1984, Lot 60
Roger I. Davidson (acquired from the above sale)
Private Collection, Los Angeles
Sotheby’s, New York, 3 October 1991, Lot 34
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner


Jack Flam, Katy Rogers and Tim Clifford, Eds., Robert Motherwell Paintings and Collages: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1994-1991, Volume Two: Paintings on Canvas and Panel, New Haven 2012, cat. no. P742, p. 370, illustrated in color


Please contact the Contemporary Art Department at (212) 606-7254 for a professional condition report prepared by Terrence Mahon.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Visually arresting and commanding in scale, Robert Motherwell’s In Plato’s Cave No. 7 from 1973 captures the painterly vigor and cerebral brilliance of one of the Twentieth Century’s most celebrated and intellectual artistic minds. Renowned for his extensive formal education and academic approach to painting, Motherwell derived the title of the present work from Greek philosopher Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which recounts a group of prisoners who, having spent their entire lives chained facing the wall of a cave and only ever able to see shadows projected onto the cave wall, have never experienced real life and thus believe these shadows to be reality. Resolutely reconciling the gap between philosophy and painting, Motherwell’s In Plato’s Cave No. 7 is an aesthetically arresting visual counterpart to Plato’s allegoric tale, challenging the viewer to question perceived reality and the limitations of their purview and to consider the capacity of painted canvas to enlighten and reveal that which is perhaps not apparent or accessible in the natural world. Integrating the languages of Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism with traces of Surrealist automatism, In Plato’s Cave No. 7 teases the boundaries between reality and perception, ultimately denying logic and realism in favor of a more immediate and direct means of communication through painterly abstraction. A testament to the philosophical and theoretical undercurrents which inspired Motherwell’s masterful oeuvre, the present work emerges from a limited series of black and white paintings titled In Plato’s Cave inaugurated in 1972, numerous of which reside in the permanent collections of esteemed museums such as the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Seattle Art Museum, the Worcester Art Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This series experiments with variations on Motherwell’s earlier Open series of paintings, incorporating gestural strokes that evoke his highly acclaimed Elegies of the Spanish Republic. As with his seminal Open paintings, the works of the In Plato’s Cave series feature a plane of color intersected by three hard-edged lines which, without specifying or enclosing a shape, activate the composition and challenge the two-dimensionality of the canvas. The impetus for the inverted “U” motif featured in the present work arose by happenstance in 1967 when Motherwell, intrigued by the shape that a smaller canvas formed lying up against a larger and captivated by the relationship established here between shape and line, traced three simple lines onto the larger canvas and thus inaugurated his Open series.

In In Plato’s Cave No. 7, expressive brushstrokes illuminate and enliven an abstract landscape otherwise enveloped in piercing darkness with smoky grays and ashen, ghostly whites. Exploring the expressive faculties of his Minimalist abstract iconography, Motherwell paints in urgent strokes which in some places culminate in impenetrable passages of densely layered paint while in others achieve an almost ethereal translucence. The composition centers around the architectural framework of the inverted “U," which delineates the mouth of a cave otherwise obscured by a velvety darkness. A burnished glow of light emanates from within this cavernous space, endowing this hollowed cavity with an enigmatic luminescence that divulges unfathomable depths whilst simultaneously acknowledging the flatness of the canvas itself. Exceptional for its rich tonality of color and thoughtful exploration of gesture and line, In Plato’s Cave No. 7 explores the very nature of abstraction and representation itself; here, Motherwell creates an enigmatic abstract landscape that, while resolutely foregoing an illusionistic representation of the natural world, draws the viewer into its captivating painterly realm, an alternate reality that reverberates within the confines of the canvas.