Robert Motherwell

Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 1, 1948
Medium: Ink on paper
Object number: 639.1987
The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA, NYC)

Description from The Metropolitan Museum of Art:  “ Beginning in about 1948, Robert Motherwell made works that would evolve into an ongoing series of over one hundred painted variations on a theme that he called Elegies to the Spanish Republic.  Initially inspired by the Spanish Civil War as well as by the poetry of Harold Rosenberg and Federico García Lorca, the real subject of Motherwell’s Elegies is not any particular literary source or political event but rather a general meditation on life and death.  Although specific paintings may express an individual spirit, or “tone voice,” they remain a family group, related to one another by subject and by similarities in composition and format.  In all of these paintings, the horizontal white canvas is rhythmically divided by two or three freely drawn vertical bars and punctuated at various intervals by ovoid forms, creating a structure seemingly heraldic in nature.  The paintings are almost always composed entirely of black and white—the colors of mourning and radiance, of death and life.  Motherwell has remarked on the entanglement of these forces in these works, as a metaphor for his understanding of the experience of living. 

Motherwell’s Elegies of the 1960s reflect his Abstract Expressionist affiliations in the gestural, painterly treatment of form, the rapid execution, and the integration of accidental effects, such as spattered paint.”

Image:   The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA, NYC)

Poetry in painting:

I knew who had sent them in those

Green cases
Who doesn’t lose his mind will receive
Like me
That wire in my neck up to the ear.

Harold Rosenberg, from  A Bird for Every Bird

Related post:   HERE

Art as action rests on the enormous assumption that the artist accepts as real only that which he is in the process of creating…The artist works in a condition of open possibility, risking, to follow Kierkegaard, the anguish of the aesthetic, which accompanies possibility lacking in reality….Each stroke had to be a decision, and was answered by a new question. By its very nature, action painting is painting in the medium of difficulties.
—  Harold Rosenberg
From Picasso Gorky learned: above all, keep at it. If you have no ideas, draw the model. If you have no model, copy reproductions. If you are depressed, draw; if you get drunk, go home and start a picture. If there is shooting outside the window, go on drawing. For the artist, there is only one real situation, and only one salvation: art.
—  “Arshile Gorky:  The Man, The Time, The Idea”, by Harold Rosenberg, 1962

Archives tell the stories of people’s lives—their fears and passions as well as their worldly accomplishments. You never know what personal gems you might find.

The papers of art critic Harold Rosenberg at the Getty Research Institute include this undated letter from photographer Dorothy Norman with an invitation to a gathering featuring Martin Luther King, Jr. in support of CORE and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King—as well as James Baldwin, Aaron Copland, Ralph Ellison, Allen Ginsberg, and other luminaries—was often to be found in Norman’s New York City townhouse.

The letter refers to the sit-ins of the early 1960s that began when African American students met with violence, resistance, and arrest for ordering coffee at “whites only” lunch counters. 

Transcription of the letter

won’t you join me

Eleanor Roosevelt                      Lillian Smith
Reverend Martin Luther King     James Baldwin

to meet with
leaders of the Student Sit-Ins

who have been in jail

to create further
public support
(Congress on Racial Equity)
Reverend King’s Southern Leadership Conference
two groups
providing crucial moral leadership
in the non-violent struggle
in the South today

at my home
124 East 70th Street
Friday, February 3rd 5:30–8 P.M.

Because of the importance of the occasion, and space
limitations, the favor of an early reply will
be greatly appreciated — R.S.V.P. — Regent 7-0722


En lugar de utilizar caballete y pinceles, colocaba en el suelo el lienzo y sobre él vertía o dejaba gotear la pintura, que manipulaba después con palos u otras herramientas, e incluso a veces le daba una gran consistencia mediante la adición de arena e incluso fragmentos de vidrio.

Gracias al apoyo de algunos críticos como Harold Rosenberg, su nombre, asociado a las obras realizadas con la técnica del dripping, se convirtió en uno de los más significativos del expresionismo abstracto y de la action painting, tendencia de la que, con De Kooning, es el representante más típico y destacado. Fue además uno de los primeros artistas en eliminar de sus obras el concepto de composición y en mezclar signos caligráficos con los trazos pictóricos.

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Eyes in the Heat

To be Modern Art a work need not be either modern nor art ; it need not even be a work. A three-thousand yeur-old mask from the South Pacific qualifies as Modern and a piece of wood found on a beach becomes Art.
—  Harold Rosenberg, cité par Thierry de Duve, in Au nom de l'art, Les éditions de minuit, Paris, 1989, p. 107.