Contemporary Art Online | New York

Contemporary Art Online | New York

View full screen - View 1 of Lot 3. Open No. 128: Charcoal with Blue on Raw Canvas.

Ancient Echoes, Modern Visions: Property from the Estate of Paul & Marianne Steiner

Robert Motherwell

Open No. 128: Charcoal with Blue on Raw Canvas

Lot Closed

July 21, 04:03 PM GMT


80,000 - 120,000 USD

Lot Details


Robert Motherwell

1915 - 1991

Open No. 128: Charcoal with Blue on Raw Canvas

signed and dated 69; titled on the stretcher

acrylic and charcoal on canvas

Canvas: 24 by 36 in.  (61 by 91.4 cm.)

Framed: 25⅛ by 37¼ in.  (63.8 by 94.6 cm.)

Marlborough Gallery, New York

Estate of Marianne E. Steiner (acquired in 1970)

Jack Flam, Katy Rogers and Tim Clifford, Eds., Robert Motherwell Paintings and Collages: A Catalogue Raisonné 1941-1991, Vol. 2: Paintings on Canvas and Panel, New Haven 2012, cat. no. P535, p. 288, illustrated in color

Belonging to his seminal Open series, Open No. 128 engages with a broad history of art but also represents Motherwell’s own radical investigation of the nature of representation. The often-told origin story of Motherwell’s Opens is worth repeating, since it can begin to teach us how to look at these deceptively simple paintings. One day, Motherwell noticed a smaller canvas that happened to be leaning against a larger one, and fascinated by the relationship between these two planes, he decided to trace the outline of the smaller canvas upon the larger one. This outline became a kind of door upon the larger painting; however, Motherwell, dissatisfied that this door suggested closure, inverted the canvas so that the outline became a u-shaped opening, a window, as he refers to it. Motherwell explains this decision, “A door imprisons, and it suggests the entrance to a cave or temple, whereas I seek the opposite: an opening into an airy, rising world.”[1]

Motherwell’s Opens explicitly reference some of Matisse’s most experimental work, such as View of Notre Dame (1914), where the window is reduced to its most basic geometry within a field of color. For Matisse, as for many of the French modernists, the window symbolized a threshold between the material world and a higher world of ideas ­­— “an airy, rising world” as Motherwell says. Matisse furthermore plays with the idea that the window is itself a representational matrix to the extent that it opens onto a space. Motherwell, who equates the canvas — or rather its outline — with the window, engages this same idea in his Opens where the window-as-painting opens onto a metaphysical world. Beyond the influence of the French modernists, Motherwell was also deeply fascinated by Japanese Zen when making the Opens:

“But there is an affinity between certain Oriental – especially Japanese Zen – painting and some of my own work. Aside from the obvious reduction of color, the predominance of black and white, and the importance of gesture, essentially it is the concept … of the metaphysical void. This is perhaps the strongest in the Opens, built on a conception analogous to the Oriental conception of the absolute void: that you start with empty space, and that the subject is that which animates the great space, the void.”[2]

This idea of the absolute void manifests itself in the expanse of the canvas, which opposes the artist’s attempt to create meaning. However, in Motherwell’s work, the canvas is both an abyss and a field of action, in which the artist contests that nothingness. In Open No. 128, the orthogonal lines as well as the overlaid expressive brushstrokes represent Motherwell’s triumphant gesture — his intervention in the emptiness of the canvas, the emptiness of the world. Motherwell says of Mallarmé that “the sustained energy for the travail must have come from the secret knowledge that each word was a link in the chain he was forging to bind himself to the universe.”[3] Thus, the artistic gesture, like the poet’s word, can make the world knowable to the artist once more; the gesture, as Motherwell says, “animates the great space, the void.” In this way, Motherwell’s Opens, in their serenity, express an ultimate sense of unity between the artist and existence that is unmatched in the Abstract Expressionist master’s oeuvre.


 [1] Robert Motherwell in conversation with Irmeline Lebeer, 1973; quoted in Clifford Ross, Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics: An Anthology (New York: Abrams, 1990), 119.

[2] Robert Motherwell in conversation with Jack Flam, 1982; quoted in Jack Flam, Motherwell (New York: Rizzoli, 1991), 16.

[3] Robert Motherwell, “What Abstract Art Means to Me,” The Museum of Modern Art Bulletin, vol. XVIII, no. 3, (spring 1951), 12.