Robert Motherwell show is an ode to the printmaking form

For some, The Essential Idea: Robert Motherwell’s Graphic Works will appear as a collection of talentless blobs and scribbles. For others, the works are a testament to the heights of American Modernism. And for the printmakers, this exhibition will serve as an ode to the medium’s variety and form.

This show presents a collection of lithographies, collages and etchings spanning the entirety of the artist’s career. It’s the first of its kind for our end of the state, or at least since the artist left Black Mountain College in the early 1950s. The North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh owns multiple Motherwell works, mostly paintings. But for Asheville and the rest of Western North Carolina, this exhibition is the largest and most comprehensive showing of his work to date. 

A special lecture will be given by Motherwell scholar Mary Ann Caws on Thursday, May 10, at 7 p.m.

Motherwell is best known as a first generation Abstract Expressionist, working alongside Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Lee Krasner, among others. “He became a spokesperson for his generation because he was a writer and a critic,” says Cole Hendrix, the exhibition’s curator. Despite his de facto role, it was printmaking that entranced Motherwell, and he dedicated the latter half of his life to the medium.

Motherwell was nothing short of obsessed by the textures that printmaking, and thus paper variety, allowed. “He was committed to exploring what printmaking could do that painting couldn’t,” Hendrix explains. This led to a lifetime of exploring the textures of plates and stones and experimenting with etching processes.

Take for instance the “Soot-Black Stone” series, six mostly black lithographs lining the north wall of the gallery. These works bring out the stone-ness of the stone. There’s jagged and crumbled textures he’s created that would otherwise be smooth stone. Looking at the “Soot-Black Stone” prints you can see gaping scars carved and etched into surface. They hover in front of thin, vertically oriented gestural lines.

Various titles throughout the show also reflect regions he visited, historical moments and even his favorite authors and books. There’s a grouping in the name of T.S. Elliot and the “Ulysses Series,” a group of prints that loosely depict scenes from the James Joyce novel. They’re small prints entitled “Cyclops,” “Midnight” and “The Streets,” all set against pale, pastel olives, aquas and rose backgrounds.

A few works earn names such as “Paris Suite” and “Africa Suite.” The “Paris Suite” has the look of interior design mock-ups that have isolated orbs of black ink. It seems random at first, but the markings allot the pieces an active foreground and give the works added depth. The two prints that make up this small cross-section of the “Africa Suite” consist of fleshy pale pink backgrounds covered by fluid swaths of black. Compared to the former series, these are entirely flattened works, void of space, but beautifully composed.

Prints can stand alone, but it’s to the viewers’ advantage to have the context that a series provides, especially when the works are this abstract. The bulk of the exhibition is grouped not only by date, but by color. Motherwell’s work largely revolves around stark contrasts of black and white, or color in the place of white. And as such, you should view the different series as isolated but also as part of the greater exhibition.

There are a few loners, namely two pinned up against the entryway. They serve as meager fillers for a space that would otherwise be empty. 

There’s a delicate balance found in the show’s repetition, one that so uniquely characterizes printmaking. Start by looking at the prints up close, seeing through their layering and the scarred etching surfaces. Then back up, and see the rectangular repetitions that create an entirely new work.

Last-minute plans

The most impressive work in the show is the entire show itself: it materialized in less than three months. (Museum shows usually take months, even years to plan.)

Frank Thomson, AAM’s head curator, was planning an exhibition that focused on maps. The show featured several high-dollar loans, but when a major source of funding didn’t come through, Thomson was forced to push the show back. Doing so maintains the show’s integrity and wholeness in the months to come. And in a last-minute pull to fill the gap, Thomson turned to Hendrix to work on an interim filler show.

Hendrix started piecing together works in mid-December with what she deemed “overly gracious” assistance from the Dedalus Foundation. The museum has been in an ongoing dialogue with the Dedalus Foundation concerning the purchase of a Motherwell painting for their permanent collection. The foundation, aside from offering annual individual and institutional grants, helps museums attain Motherwell works at a fraction of their market value. 

Because the show was last minute, there was barely a budget for it. “Dedalus loaned us most of the work, entirely free of charge,” Hendrix says. The museum’s exhibition preparator, Dean Butckovitz, drove to New York to get the works, saving on shipping. The show essentially operated on a budget that hinged on state-by-state gasoline prices. Once the work was selected and delivered, Hendrix, with assistance from Butckovitz, pieced together the show amidst the chaos of the museum’s expansion project.

The Essential Idea is Hendrix’s second major printmaking exhibition since arriving at the museum in 2007, the first being last year’s WPA exhibition. Her background in 1950s and ‘60s American painting largely sidesteps printmaking. And while most artists from the early-to-mid-20th century worked with printmaking for short periods, it so rarely became a lifetime passion, the way it did with Motherwell. 

For a curator who readily admits that “prints aren’t my thing,” the exhibition suggests otherwise.

What is the Dedalus Foundation?
Motherwell founded the Dedalus Foundation in 1981 to “foster public understanding of Modern Art and Modernism.” The name comes from the Greek mythological craftsman/artisan, Daedalus. But Motherwell, a James Joyce fanatic, adopted the spelling of Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Motherwell, much like the Stephen Dedalus, left his studies at Columbia to pursue a life as an artist.

About Kyle Sherard
Book lover, arts reporter, passerby…..

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