On a cool Saturday morning, bright with the smell of spring, the gallery scene in Chelsea was already bustling before eleven in the morning. Young neighborhood parents with children in tow, seasoned collectors, tourists, and artists alike all mingled in and out of the galleries, mostly on side streets, between 10th and 11th Avenue in the 20s.
My stops included the Gagosian Gallery and the Mike Weiss Gallery. First was the Robert Motherwell: The Art of Collage installation at the Paul Kasmin Gallery, which was of notable interest. While the lighting in the gallery itself was quite poor, something that would have undoubtedly dismayed Motherwell, whose work was inspired by the bright openness and light of California, the art nevertheless breathed a light of its own.
Motherwell’s collages are all quite simple with few colors. The colors themselves are each rich and evocative. While simple, many of the collages suggest a story or a reference. “Country Life No. 1” features a bright blue, again most likely inspired by his California youth, but also reminiscent of a Matisse blue. The top part of the collage is blue, the bottom brown. The blue again appears as a rectangle in the brown with an envelope mirroring it on the blue. It looks like a piece of mail going into a mailbox or a letter being opened by the artist on a dirt road against a clear blue sky. The simplicity welcomes interpretation while the objects remain familiar.
“White With Four Corners” has a bright wheat gold background on which are layered triangles in the four corners with a large triangle in the middle. The middle triangle has a square cut out. The whole form resembles a nude, with the torso, the arms, and the legs. The simple shapes could also just be simple shapes, but a form suggests itself.
Several of his collages have cigarette packets embedded in the art. Found objects find their way into his work frequently and tie into his interest in the Dada movement. While he smoked cigarettes, he tends to use the packets preferred by his friends. “Tobacco Harvest” depicts a cigarette box that seems to have been buried underground. The dark earthy brown around it and the etched lines envelop the object. The juxtaposition of a found object in the collage is again representative of the playful, comedic element of Dadaism, which can be loosely described as “a form of artistic anarchy” (Wikipedia) and political commentary.
“Untitled, Red” is one of the most striking pieces in the exhibit because of the strong red color that dominates the collage. In the center stands a gray rectangle shape, around which is the red. The red, with its etched lines, resembles bark or a flat piece of wood. In contrast, “Beckett’s Space No. 2” (1974) is simply brown, misshapen with a partially incomplete look. Yet, it has a balance and beauty to it that is unique to Motherwell. As Hilton Kramer claims in her article in the New York Times, his most successful works are “those that bear no association or form other than that created by the artist on the page” (1968).
Motherwell, who studied philosophy at Stanford and received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Harvard, was very interested in the aesthetic philosophy and theory behind his art. He coined the phrase “New School” artists, which includes Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko.
Robert Motherwell: The Art of Collage at Paul Kasmin Gallery
April 14 – May 21, 2016
297 Tenth Ave.
Writing by Carmen Elinor James
Photographs provided by the gallery