Motherwell created a body of work of astonishing depth and diversity over the course of five decades. His work engages with a wide variety of approaches to abstraction, ranging from severe monochrome to intense coloration, from organic to more geometric compositions. Across this stylistic breadth, Motherwell combined his deft command of expressive brushwork with a rigorous structure, frequently alluding to literature and politics. Motherwell took pride in being a part of the lineage of modern painting, and embraced in his work the influence of Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso. Of equal interest were Asian traditions of painting, drawing, and calligraphy; he also profited from the diverse ideologies of European artists living in New York in refuge from World War II, particularly the Surrealists Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, and Roberto Matta. From them, he learned the concept of “psychic automatism,” a form of drawing in which the artist allows an unconscious, spontaneous impulse to lead the way. Motherwell used the technique with great success in developing his own brand of abstraction.
Motherwell is a painter of series–throughout his career, a relatively small number of compositional starting points or subject matters intrigued him and he explored the possibilities within each one. As a highly visible and well-respected member of the Abstract Expressionist movement, he adhered to and excelled in the movement's core stylistic value: conveying emotion through process, generally by non-representational means. Motherwell asserted that his work is an art of subjects, his paintings come out of life and feed back into it; in no sense are they pure abstractions that merely decorate.
Red, Cut by Black offers an abstract rhythm of loose geometry. The horizontal format and black rectangular shapes compartmentalize the canvas into varying proportions and color saturations, as can be most clearly seen in the lower portion of the canvas. This work testifies to Motherwell’s bold experiments with color, in part prompted by the impact of Color Field painting in the 1960s. Motherwell spent part of his youth in California, and in these canvases he returns to memories of the region's bright colors and expansive spaces.
Motherwell eschewed the facile impact of wildly expressive brushstrokes in this work in favor of a bold, and sophisticated hard-edged composition that moves towards the classical. Each element is carefully weighted and balanced against one another from the tension of forms to the painterly quality. The work resists any single interpretation as part of its strength. There is something spontaneous about the black forms and shapes, while simultaneously exacting, as suggested by the painting’s title Red, Cut by Black.
This painting is unique in its position situated within Motherwell’s oeuvre as it was created in between his two major series and retains influences of both. The artist’s earlier works entitled the Elegies are amongst the most recognizable paintings to emerge from Abstract Expressionism. Their central motif involves hauntingly repeated black vertical bars and ovoid shapes, which assert themselves powerfully and formally, expressing great emotion. Somewhat contrastingly, his mature series, beginning in 1967/68, entitled the Open paintings, consist of broad color fields, whose only additional feature is an incomplete rectangle or trapezoid that resembles a window or door. These works clearly reference architecture, yet the Elegies are more ambiguous, their barbaric forms presenting an incredibly elastic pictorial language that communicates on multiple levels and eludes easy resolution. The archetypal shapes of this series are rich in associations, exemplifying Motherwell's belief in the efficacy of simple configurations and truly felt gestures to carry and release his most profound emotions. The present work incorporates components of both of these series.
Rather than seek to break as much as possible from the past, as say Jackson Pollock was attempting, Motherwell was well-schooled in modernism and saw his work as part of the art historical dialogue, particularly with Matisse. Like Matisse, Motherwell's work always has an underlying elegance and a delicate balance, no matter how raw and powerful the gesture. With Red, Cut by Black, Motherwell discovered an incredibly elastic pictorial language that would communicate on multiple levels but also eludes easy resolution.
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