Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)
Property from the Advanta Collection
Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)

In Black and White No. 5

Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)
In Black and White No. 5
signed with initials and dated 'RM 66' (upper right); signed again, titled and dated again '"IN BLACK + WHITE, #5" Robert Motherwell 1966' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
66 x 50 in. (167.6 x 127 cm.)
Painted in 1966.
Marlborough-Gerson Gallery Inc., New York
Private collection, New York
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 13 May 1981, lot 40
Will Ameringer Fine Art Inc., New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1998
Philadelphia, Drexel Institute of Technology, Art 75: Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Exhibition; Contemporary Painting and Sculpture, November-December 1966.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 163rd Annual Exhibition American Oil Painting and Sculpture, January-March 1968.

Lot Essay

This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Paintings & Collages by Robert Motherwell being prepared by the Dedalus Foundation.

To look at Robert Motherwell's In Black and White #5 is to observe the artist as he creates the work. As a highly visible and well-respected member of the Abstract Expressionist movement, he adhered to and excelled in the movement's core stylistic value: conveying emotion through process, generally by non-representational means. Shockingly wild and energetic In Black and White #5 freezes the upwardly thrusting black line strewn with paint splatter dramatically splitting its non-uniform white background. The resultant work truly expresses the underlying energy and spontaneity inseparable from the artist's process, as dictated by his thoughts.

Robert Motherwell and other exalted artists including Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, and Jackson Pollock, strayed from traditional artistic predilections to foster Abstract Expressionism, a distinctly American style, arguably the greatest of the Post-war period. As the group's intellectual leader, Motherwell wrote seminal texts that codified the movement, guiding artists and garnering public attention. This was only possible given his unique background: before delving into art, he studied philosophy at premier universities, where he first investigated the theory of abstraction. Largely unfettered by a traditional artistic background, he was able to circumvent his peers' reservations toward the movement, most notably those concerning incompatibility with traditional subject matter and composition.

While In Black and White #5 comprises undeniable vivacity, it is largely tempered. A non-uniform white background covers up transient portions of the streak's splatter. It pulses electrically in relative solitude, a debilitated and caged descendent of the earlier bolts. Its horizontal ground, a series of mildly serpentine bars, neither stands defiantly solid nor with order-defying vigor. The entire work straddles the line between spontaneous and exacting, refined and wild; non-coincidently, his life at the time reflected this dynamic. Reeling from the tragic death of his closest friend, the renowned sculptor David Smith, he entered a period of intense reflection. Motherwell described his intense and nearly boundless bond with Smith as one that reinforced each other's bravado, optimism, and zest for life. Unsurprisingly, Motherwell was left to painfully and apprehensively reconsider the world around him, which reflected in his work as a personal elegiac statement.

Beyond marking a major point in Motherwell's life, this work also represents a milestone for his career. Using quick-drying acrylic paint in In Black and White #5, one of the first in which he utilized the medium, allowed him to fuse both of his painting modes: the inspired and near instantaneous and production in many iterations separated by long periods of time. In Black and White #5 stands as an ideal statement of an American master at a pivotal moment in his life and career, all the while exquisite in its balance and beauty.

More from Post-War and Contemporary Morning Session

View All
View All