In a much later note on his 1949 painting "The Voyage," Robert Motherwell wrote that the title "refers to the sense we had in the 1940s of voyaging on unknown seas (however conventional the work may now seem) and, of course, refers also Baudelaire's famous poem 'The Voyage.' "
That sentence is entirely characteristic of Motherwell, who died Tuesday at 76, not least because it appears to be a simple statement but has more to it than one might think: The bracketing of the old with the new; the realization that however radical the present moment may seem, it is nothing more than the latest product of the past; the concomitant knowledge that today's creation will be tomorrow's history; the casual, almost offhand reference to the French poet with that "of course" thrown in as if to say everybody knows that.
Motherwell was certainly one of the most complex and erudite minds among 20th century American artists, and it shows in both his writings and his art.
He was a member of the post-World War II generation of abstract expressionists, or the New York School. But if he created the big gestural paintings that one expects of the abstract expressionists, he also created beautiful collages which he called "my joy" and for which he may one day be even better remembered.
If he was American, he was thoroughly steeped in the history and traditions of European modernism and acknowledged the importance of cubism and surrealism, of Picasso and Miro and Mondrian, to American art. But that is not where his learning ended: A scholar and critic as well as a painter, he was a student of philosophy, of literature, of Freudian psychoanalysis. In comparing modern art to French poetry, he wrote that "both have sought in modern times to recover the primitive, magical and bold force of their mediums and to bring it into relation to the complexities of modern felt attitudes and knowledge."
No doubt due in part to his intimacy with cultural history, he saw the art of the 20th century as a continuity rather than a break with the past. To understand it, he said, helps us to understand the art of the past. And, he added, its aims are not divorced from those of life. Modern art, he said at one point, is "universalizing and humanizing."
And that is a clue to his work, for if it is rigorously intellectual it is also deeply emotional; if it has its esoteric side it also has communicative power and seductive beauty. His "Elegy to the Spanish Republic" series is about life and death; his "Open" paintings are about masculinity and femininity; his collages can be as lyrical as music.
Motherwell's work may not be as instantly recognizable as that of some of his contemporaries such as Pollock or Rothko; but to know it is to respond not only to the mind but to the very human being who made it.
The Baltimore Museum of Art owns six works by Robert 1/2 Motherwell: two paintings, two prints, a collage and a gouache. The only one on view at the moment is the painting "Africa," a gift to the BMA from the artist.