Paul Kasmin Gallery is pleased to announce a forthcoming exhibition of the early paintings of Robert Motherwell, which will open on September 7, 2017. Comprised solely of paintings from the 1940s and early 1950s, the exhibition will be one of only two such solo presentations to focus on the artist’s early explorations in painting, and the first in New York City.
The paintings from this period trace Motherwell’s emergence from an initial Surrealist influence to the more gestural and expressionist paintings for which he has become canonized. Building on the revelation of Motherwell’s innovative approach to art-making that was solidified by the well-received exhibition, Robert Motherwell: Early Collages, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 2013, this show aims to delve deeper into the artist’s ever-oscillating positions between representation and abstraction; automatism and pre-determination; and object versus image.
Motherwell began his artistic career in earnest in 1941 following a visit with Surrealist painter Roberto Matta to Mexico City. Motherwell was encouraged by Meyer Schapiro to abandon his theoretical studies at Columbia University in favor of a studio art practice. His first compositions were rooted in figuration, but populated by gestural brushwork that foreshadowed his growing affinity for pure abstraction. Reunited for the first time in this exhibition are Motherwell’s first two realized paintings as an avowed artist, La Belle Mexicaine (Maria), 1941, and Three Figures, c. 1941, which has never before been on public view.
In 1942, Motherwell was profoundly impacted by the first New York solo exhibition of Piet Mondrian, the father of De Stijl whose minimalist abstractions were on display at the Valentine Gallery. The exhibition, which Motherwell visited “nearly a dozen times,” prompted the artist to organize his pictorial space geometrically while retaining a painterliness and allusion to narrative. This approach is evident in Recuerdo de Coyoacán, 1942, and The Sentinel, 1942, the latter of which was the first Motherwell work acquired by Peggy Guggenheim.
The Spanish Prison (Window), 1943-44, was included in the artist’s first solo exhibition at Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery in 1944, and is indicative of the evolution of his geometric compositions. The imposing vertical bands that punctuate the composition foreshadow the iconic Spanish Elegy series, and Motherwell would comment in the catalogue for his solo exhibition at Samuel Kootz Gallery in 1950 that it was in fact “the first of the Spanish Elegies.” The painting was eventually selected by Motherwell and Frank O’Hara for the artist’s first major traveling retrospective, organized by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1965. As the 1940s progressed, Motherwell continued to push his painting and collage techniques simultaneously, which led to inevitable compositional crossover. In works such as Line Figure on Green, 1945, and Orange Personage, 1947, the stark layering of hard-edged forms, while painted, evokes the organizational ambitions of the revolutionary collages that were emerging from his studio at the same time.