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    Sale 1904

    Post War and Contemporary Art Morning Session

    14 November 2007, New York, Rockefeller Plaza

  • Lot 121

    Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)

    The Figure 4 on an Elegy

    Price Realised  

    Estimate

    Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)
    The Figure 4 on an Elegy
    oil on paper laid down on masonite
    22 7/8 x 28¾ in. (58.1 x 73 cm.)
    Painted in 1960.


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    This work will be included in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné of paintings and collages being prepared by the Dedalus Foundation.

    The Figure 4 on an Elegy is a beautiful example of Motherwell's celebrated Elegy series, combining aspects of Iberia with Elegy and other images. As Arnason remarked in his important book on Motherwell: "a freely-brushed, red-brown figure 4, set over the powerfully simple elegaic forms, is related to the triangles and diamonds of the Views and the Summertime in Italy series. The black cloud turns into, or is in the process of enveloping, the ovals and phallic verticals surrounded by splatter and drip in an orgiastic or orgasmic condition of frenzied actuality. The shapes overlap the picture edges on all four sides, creating the effect of a fragment in a state of metamorphous or dissolution" (H.H. Arnason, Robert Motherwell, New York, 1977, p. 56)

    H.H. Arnason describes Robert Motherwell's career as a drama of "classical" and "expressive" orders, the patrician and ragged. Indeed, Motherwell's art has always appeared balanced fitfully on the edge of conflict. How else to describe a painter capable of the intelligent and luxurious Open series and as tragic an utterance as the Spanish Elegy? It is the difference, say, between the carefree, uncanny life of Gauloises packets and the suffering of Goya. But the tension has sustained Motherwell's career and some of his best works, such as The Figure 4 on an Elegy.

    Hand-selected by H.H. Arnason from the artist's Connecticut studio wall, The Figure 4 is a quintessential Motherwell. The Figure 4 contains the motifs of both the celebrated Spanish Elegy paintings and the Iberia series; in the right half of the work, the bruised, blot-like oval of Motherwell's Spanish Elegy is depicted, hanging like meat in a butcher's window, alongside the iconic figure "4" that reappears throughout Motherwell's paintings of the 1960s.

    Both have a specific meaning. Motherwell once described the Elegies as a "lamentation or funeral song" after the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Motherwell was only twenty-one when the war broke out, but the Elegies became a lodestar for the artist who would go one to paint more than 100 variations on the series from the late 1940s well into the reign of Francisco Franco in 1967. During that time, the series' meaning expanded from Motherwell's own metaphor for injustice to a determinedly universal symbol for the cycle of life and death. By contrast, the Iberia seem to have been vessels for Motherwell to explore and engage in Surrealist "automation"- within bounds. Like the other members of the New York School, whose name he coined, Motherwell sought a universality for his art, believing in the power of images to act as incantations capable of sustaining-and releasing-psychic weight.
    The imagery of The Figure 4 comes from such ambitions. As Arnason notes: the left half of the work is painted with the clarity of low relief. In turn, the large and expansive turpentine black form seems to war against the white of the paper. Motherwell's black conjures a host of associations, often described by historians and critics as bull's testicles and Mythic shadows. In the hands of Motherwell, as in the hands of Matisse, black becomes a color, not merely the sign of its absence. The surface of The Figure 4 "records" the violence of its painting - drips and smears, like the splattered mud of cave painting or the blood-in-the-dirt weightiness of one of Picasso's paintings of bullfights. And yet, because The Figure 4 is a Motherwell, the work on paper is not irretrievably savage. The "4" figure is, in particular, painted with calligraphic skills, like a stamp of civilization atop an otherwise ragged scene. One knows how little time it took to paint but one senses the years of practice behind it.

    Arnason offers an interpretation of the present work that could only come from his close friendship with the artist. In a 1966 article for Art International, Arnason describes The Figure 4 as part of the expansion of Motherwell's powers as an artist following a divorce and subsequent remarriage to the artist Helen Frankenthaler in 1958 and their honeymoon in Italy that year. In short, a postcard from abroad. "These are essentially landscapes," he writes of paintings containing the "4" figure. "The triangle form rears up from a horizontal plane in a manner suggestive of an Apennine mountain crest. At a complete remove the triangle can be read as a sculpture against a an Italian sky." (H.H. Arnason, "Robert Motherwell: The Years 1948 to 1965" Art International, April 20, 1966, p. 38.)

    Provenance

    Acquired from the artist
    By descent to the present owners


    Pre-Lot Text

    Property from the Estate of H. H. Arnason

    The renowned art historian H. H. Arnason's History of Modern Art has been the classic account of the story of art history -- from Courbet to the present day -- for nearly four decades. Arnason didn't write his History until relatively late in life and his belief, set forth in the book's preface, has the authority and wisdom that set it apart from other studies. For Arnason was firm in his belief in the importance of visual literacy: "the thesis of this book, insofar as it has a thesis, is that in the study of art the only primary evidence is the work of art itself" (H. H. Arnason, quoted in the introduction to History of Modern Art, 5th edition, ed. Peter Kalb, Saddle River, 2003). This tenet also influenced his collection, a thoughtful group of works that was informed by Arnason's close observations of each artist's work that developed from his studies about them.

    Arnason's History has become the definitive account of Modern Art, proving that Arnason's book has what Peter Kalb, editor of the book's fifth edition, describes as "marathon staying power." Early editions of the book end with the artists Agnes Martin and Brice Marden. The latest, published in 2003, having waded safely through the pluralism of the last thirty years, ends with Cai Guo-Qiang's Advertising Castle. While the contours of History of Modern Art will be argued over for years to come, as Arnason would have wanted, his channel is set.

    Yet History of Modern Art was only one of the historian's many achievements. A scholar and administrator of the highest order, Arnason served as Professor and Chairman of the University of Minnesota's art department from 1947 to 1961, director of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis and, most importantly, Vice President for Art Administration at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. As Vice President for Art Administration, Arnason ran the art-side of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Among the exhibits he put on was the influential survey of American abstract painting "Abstract Expressionists and Imagists," an important show that brought to the forefront such artists as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell and Philip Guston. He was also instrumental in obtaining the Justin Thanhauser Collection for the Guggenheim, a very important collection of Impressionist and Modern art.

    Arnason was also the author of more than a half-dozen books on Philip Guston, Alexander Calder, Jacques Lipchitz, Conrad Marca-Relli, the 18th century French neo-classicist Houdon, as well as an essential monograph on Robert Motherwell. While working on his book, Arnason became close friends with Motherwell, and their friendship helps to explain the dead-on insight that Arnason's book provides. In fact, Arnason researched firsthand in Motherwell's Connecticut studio, and the present work being offered from Arnason's estate, The Figure 4 on an Elegy, was hand-selected by Arnason from Motherwell's studio wall. Arnason's eye for collecting was unparalleled and was keenly informed by his close friendships to the artists he studied; it is clear that Arnason's taste in modern art was as good as his sense of its history. It begs the question of what the art historian might have done had he turned his prodigious attention from scholarship to collecting. As it is, the Arnason collection is a testimony of his extraordinary talent.


    Literature

    G. Nordland, "From Dirge to Jeer," Arts Magazine, February 1962, p. 50 (illustrated). H.H. Arnason, "Robert Motherwell: The Years 1948 to 1965," Art International, 20 April 1966, p. 28, pl. 27 (illustrated).
    R. Hobbs, Motherwell's Concern with Death in Painting: An Investigation of His Elegies to the Spanish Republic, Including an Examination of His Philosophical and Methodological Considerations, Ph.D dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1975, pp. 255, 257, 260-261 and 263, pl. 38 (illustrated).
    O. Granath, "Ogonblick av passion," Dagens Nyheter, 7 December 1976, p. 4 (illustrated).
    H.H. Arnason, Robert Motherwell, New York, 1977, pp. 34, 56 and 64, pl. 125 (illustrated) and pl. 126 (illustrated in color).
    American Art at Mid-Century: The Subjects of the Artists, National Gallery of Art, exh. cat., 1978, pp. 31, 111-113, figs. 11 and 12, pl. 14 (illustrated).
    J. Hernandez, "Robert Motherwell," Arteguia, April 1980, p. 27.
    R. Mattison, "The Emperor of China: Symbols of Power and Vulnerability in the Art of Robert Motherwell during the 1940's," Art International, November-December 1982, p. 10. H.H. Arnason, Robert Motherwell, New York, 1982, pp. 142-143, pl. 162 (illustrated in color).
    M. Pleynet, Les Etats-Unis De La Peinture, Paris, 1986, p. 85. M. Pleynet, Robert Motherwell, Paris, 1989, pp. 103 and 111 (illustrated in color).
    J. Flam, Motherwell, London, 1991, pl. 49 (iIllustrated in color). S. Polcari, Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience, Cambridge, 1991, p. 316-317, pl. 255 (illustrated).
    D. Anfam, Abstract Expressionism, New York, 2002, p. 169.


    Exhibited

    New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, Paintings and Collages by Robert Motherwell, April-May 1961, no. 6 (illustrated).
    São Paolo, Museu de Arte Moderna, VI Bienal de São Paulo, September-December 1961.
    Pasadena Art Museum, Robert Motherwell: A Retrospective Exhibition, February-March 1962, no. 46 (illustrated).
    Northhampton, Smith College Museum of Art, An Exhibition of the Work of Robert Motherwell, January 1963, no. 17.
    Cambridge, New Gallery, Charles Hayden Memorial Library, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Robert Motherwell, February-March 1963.
    New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Robert Motherwell, September-November 1965, p. 31, no. 48 (illustrated).
    Düsseldorf, Städtische Kunsthalle, Robert Motherwell, September-October 1976, pp. 27, 32, 34, 47 and 103, no. 28 (illustrated).
    Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Robert Motherwell: Choix de Peintures et Collages 1941-1977, June-September 1977 (illustrated).
    Edinburgh, The Royal Scottish Academy, Robert Motherwell: Paintings and Collages 1941-1977, October-November 1977, no. 11 (illustrated).
    London, Royal Academy of Arts, Robert Motherwell: Paintings and Collages from 1941 to the Present, January-March 1978, p. 15, no. 11 (illustrated).
    Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, American Art at Mid-Century: The Subjects of the Artist, June 1978-January 1979, p. 31, pl. 14 (illustrated).
    Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Robert Motherwell, October-November 1983, p. 78, no. 36 (illustrated in color).
    New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Robert Motherwell, December 1984-February 1985.