Robert Motherwell, born in 1915, studied philosophy and psychoanalytic theory, traveled widely in Europe, became interested in French literature and wrote on Andre Gide, made the acquaintance of Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp and other European artists in New York during World War II, executed his first collages in Jackson Pollock's studio and exhibited with Pollock, William Baziotes and others of the New York School.
As an artist, he is a product of all of those influences. In him, spontaneity is tempered by intellectual rigor, a kind of overt emotionality one associates with Americans is balanced by European reserve, exquisite collages alternate with paintings tremendous in scale. Although certain elements, such as a shape or a theme, have threaded their way through his work, it does not have quite the instant recognition factor as that of some other artists of his generation; but to become acquainted with his work is to admire the mind behind it and to respond to the dignity of his monumentality no less than to the elegance of his hand.
Six recent Motherwell prints (along with a few earlier ones) are now being shown at the Sylvia Cordish Gallery (through March 31). The new ones (all 1991) are lithographs on handmade paper, one with collage and one with hand coloring. While there is Motherwell imagery as well as Motherwell discrimination present in these prints, they are not quite as satisfying as other work in the medium.
They are a little looser, one might even be tempted to say freer, than earlier prints; what they sacrifice is the counterpoint between spontaneity and tension, and the exquisiteness of design of works as recent as, say, the "America-La France Variations" (1983-1984), one of which is also being shown.
"Burning Elegy" is of course related to the "Elegy to the Spanish Republic" series; the principal black shapes are immediately familiar, and here they appear to be curling up, like paper consumed by the enveloping orange fire. Fatigue, like beauty, may lie in the eye of the beholder, but there is a certain lack of freshness here, as of one variation too many.
Similarly, "Black for Mozart," with its collage of a sheet of Mozart music, looks somewhat perfunctory. This is the 200th anniversary of Mozart's death and there will be mammoth festivals of his music, so what could be more appropriate? But the collaged element lacks the sense of being an inevitable part of the whole that is such a distinctive virtue of Motherwell's collages.
Nevertheless, Motherwell's spirit enters and informs these works. The brushy gray passage at the lower left of "Black Cathedral," just echoed in the center, brings the whole work to life. The blues of "Mediterranean Light" are played off against yellows that suffuse this print with color, light and a shimmering heat that really are Mediterranean.
These Motherwells may not be his best, but he is here as always incapable of creating undistinguished art.