Bernard Jacobson Gallery has launched their new space in Mayfair with a retrospective of Robert Motherwell. This marks not only what would be Motherwell’s 100th birthday but the artist’s largest survey in London since his 1978 retrospective at the Royal Academy. Throughout the exhibition Motherwell’s contrived gestural mark making strikingly rises and falls in synergies of chaotic violence and nimble romanticism. However, owing to his tireless efforts to be innovative, as seen by his prolific talents as a print maker and his works on paper, this exhibition bares all the marks of a truly great artist that should not be defined only by the success of Abstract Expressionism.
One of the most characteristic works on display, ‘Beside the Sea No. 3’ (1962), utilises paint splashed on to laminated paper and derives from the waves crashing on to
the sea wall outside Motherwell’s Cape Cod studio. An arch of brown paint drops rain down towards the top of the composition before whiplashing back on itself. Two lines dissect the paper, brown on top of baby blue. Underneath, the brown paint drops continue, yet are subject to far more forceful application. The brown paint drops are ringed by a soft bleed of oil that has escaped from the paint into the paper - a caught moment - echoing the time between the waves crashing against the sea wall and tide pulling them back out.
Motherwell’s visceral capturing of the forces of nature that will long out live mankind is mirrored charmingly by the artificialness seized upon in ‘California’ (1959). This
is a large horizontal canvas marked by vertical sections of colour. On the left, a fantastic blue, almost too true to be real is squeezed to the edge of the canvas by a curving burnt gold. This is followed by a more expansive area of unfilled canvas with a pale blue-white blend forming an ‘S’ shape, before being framed on the far right of the canvas by a mustardy brown frenzy of brush marks. It’s a happy-go-lucky canvas that channels the perpetually perfect weather and vast areas of desert that have become synonymous with dreaming images of California. Standing before the work retro-activates a sense of carefree adventure and youthful optimism that epitomised the post-war America, particularly, of course, in California.
In stark contrast ‘Africa No. 6’ (1975) a small horizontal oil on board painting sees a grey-white background succumbing to a tidal wave of black that emanates from
the right of the composition. The black is dense and toxic, impasto in areas, yet its raw prowess over the composition is intoxicatingly seductive. In this, one begins to feel primitively akin to the emotive presence of Motherwell, trying to gain an insight into the state of mind needed to create a work that can retain such a precise and demanding volatility where time has no place.
Motherwell’s subtlety, found in collision after collision of hand, mind and form, is perhaps best placed between abstracted figuration and raw emotion in ‘Untitled (New
England Elegy No. 5)’ (1967). A huge square painting that was a commission for the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Boston and an elegy to the late president, sees explosive shades of rusted orange and blood red intertwined in an omnipotent network of fracturing black scrapes. In the centre is a blue splurge cast in a white outer smudge. This one isolated form, set against the encroaching terror aptly captures the turmoil of 60s America. The work is terrifyingly astute as a vehicle for socio-cultural frontierism and illuminates the importance of Motherwell on a broader scale. As critic Robert Hughes said best “…his full maturity came after the abstract expressionist ‘period’ – in fact, after 1960 – and his career illustrates the perils of generalising about decades, groups or movements.”