Robert Motherwell is among the masters of modernist Abstract Expressionism and one of its most erudite and articulate spokespeople. So it is with a sly wink that he recalls Barnett’s Newman’s statement that “when he reads Motherwell’s writing, he learns what he has been reading, but when he wants to know what he is really concerned with at a given moment, he looks at the artist’s pictures” (F. O’Hara, Robert Motherwell, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1966, n.p.). The key phrase here is “at a given moment,” for Motherwell’s range of artistic achievement is vast, extending from drawing, printmaking, collage, and painting and his imagery as varied as it is layered with meaning. That meaning, as Newman had averred, is often hidden. The exquisite Black and White No. 3 carries a boldly expressive gestural motif of a number four which, together with the crossing orthogonal vectors that bear it, is emblematic of modernism’s spiritual, nearly mythic symbols and signs that artists such as Jackson Pollock, Adolf Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, and Newman fused with gestural painterly markings. Black and White No. 3 affects us first by its formal qualities—branch-like arms, the coloristic positive-negative effect created by the red-orange number four embedded in the intensely black “trunk,” and its cut into the lateral horizontal ochre ribbon that seem to describe literal terrain from which the form rises. Motherwell also relies on his characteristically limited palette that most often features black and white as the principal actors in his dramatic visual essays. Black and white become “protagonists,” while the natural earth pigment ochre, represents the earth: “Mainly I use each color as simply symbolic: ocher for the earth, green for the grass, blue for the sea and sky. I guess black and white, which I use most often, tend to be the protagonists” (R. Motherwell, “A Conversation at Lunch,” in An Exhibition of the Work of Robert Motherwell, Northampton, Mass, 1963, n.p.). The polarity between light and dark reinforces the contrast, but also structure pictorial organization even as they comprise its content: “Black is death, anxiety; white is life, éclat” (R. Motherwell quoted in J. Flam, Robert Motherwell, New York, 1991, p. 9). These non-colors function as the “bedrock of [Motherwell’s] image making” (J. Flam, ibid., p. 8).
Motherwell started using the number four in 1942 in a painting entitled Recuerdo de Coyoacán: El Miedo de la Obsuridad. It is neatly incised on a rectilinear canvas, its meaning hermetic; he again deploys it in 1960, on the work, The Figure 4 on an Elegy. Speculation on its meaning runs from references to the four members of his family, the four elements, the four seasons, the four humors, the four corners of the earth—and to Carl Gustav Jung’s “quaternity, the fourfold nature of the psyche, and its relationship to mandalas and to the notion of ‘squaring the circle’” (J. Flam, K. Rogers, T. Clifford, Robert Motherwell Paintings and Collages: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991, Volume Two, cf. In Black and Pink with the Number Four, “Commentary,” New Haven, 2012, p. 200). The possible “answers” to this conundrum are all very esoteric and none of them particularly relevant. Motherwell was no more enlightening on the subject when he wrote, “The figure 4, which appears as early as 1942—i.e., during the first several years of my painting—has baffled curious iconographyers. There is a long discussion of 4’s significance by Jung, but whether his notions are relevant to me or not, I do not know” (R. Motherwell quoted in H. H. Arnason, Robert Motherwell, New York, 1982, p. 12).
In several works around this time, Motherwell fancifully excises the upper pyramidal shape of the number four, floating it freely in open fields in the series of works of which the present work is the third. Departing from In Black and Pink with the Number Four from the same year, and In Black and Pink (Museum of Modern Art, New York), Motherwell elaborated the pictorial disposition of this shape in several iterations, whereby it finally come to rest in the last of the series with an enlarged, upturned v-shape, grounded by the literal number four—as if coming full circle to its source in the Arabic. Leaving aside any numerological significance, Motherwell’s formal elements are in themselves fascinating and engaging. The impenetrable blackness of the central form brings one close to a similar density in one of the artist’s Elegies, in this case, the Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 108 (The Barcelona Elegy) in which a horizontal band, in this case three tiered, is a reference to the flag of Catalonia, Barcelona’s capital, where the year before a student uprising was brutally suppressed. That the colors red and yellow in Black and White No. 3, in particular the ochre band incised in the anchoring black pedestal brings us back to Newman’s remark, is no surprise. For it is in such formal considerations that discover “what Motherwell is really concerned with at a given moment” (B. Newman, op. cit.).