Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more
Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)

Open No. 164

Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)
Open No. 164
signed twice 'R Motherwell RM' (upper left); signed again and dated ‘Robert Motherwell 9 August 1970’ (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
60 x 71 in. (152.4 x 180.3 cm.)
Painted in 1970-1977.
Dedalus Foundation, New York
James and Kerianne Flynn, New York, 2007
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 13 May 2015, lot 124
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
J. Flam, K. Rogers and T. Clifford, eds., Robert Motherwell Paintings and Collages: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991, Vol. 2: Paintings on Canvas and Panel, New Haven, 2012, no. P563, p. 299 (illustrated).
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Lot Essay

Robert Motherwell’s seminal Open series has its origins in an event that happened purely by chance. In March 1967 Motherwell noticed one of his canvases, Summertime in Italy, leaning against a larger work. He liked the appearance of the smaller painting set against the larger one and traced its outline in charcoal onto the surface of the other work. The tracing suggested the shape of a door or a window. This chance discovery lead to an exciting new body of work—every bit as important as his more famous Elegies Series—that the artist would pursue throughout the following decade and the present work, Open No. 164, is an accomplished work from this significant series.

Understood through comparison with Motherwell’s earlier works, the painterly, gestural Elegies series, his Open paintings show just how expansive his vision was. The works in this series were a bold move by an artist in the midst of his career, setting off in a new direction from the Abstract Expressionist painterly language with which he had made his reputation. He once described the series as “painted plane[s] beautifully divided by minimal means, the essence of line drawing…the viscosity of paint, of color fields, of the skin of the world highly abstracted” (R. Motherwell, quoted by G. Glueck, “Robert Motherwell, Master of Abstract…,” New York Times, July 18, 1991).

In the Open series, Motherwell investigated ideas not only from the creations of the great 19th and early 20th Century artists who preceded him, but also those of a younger generation of artists who emerged in the 1960s and pursued the styles of Minimalism, Color-Field Painting, and Conceptualism. The series, including Open No. 164, show Motherwell’s thorough grasp of art history, deep exploration of philosophical questions of perception, and desire to remain engaged as a mature artist, rather than merely rest on his substantial earlier accomplishments. Increasingly, critics and art historians are considering the Open canvases to be among the most important works of his career.

Open No. 164 is divided into thirds made up of blocks of stolid blues and black, with its defining element a dramatic arch, painted in vivid red and occupying the entire central portion of the canvas. The work derives its power and generates tension through the juxtaposition of the dramatic strokes of the arch within the calmer monochrome segments that make up the background. Although a departure from his earlier paintings, the work retains the essential quality of the hand-drawn gesture, exploring the basic elements of line and color rather than entering the pure territory of Minimalism.

The arch or inverted V shape that dominates the pictorial space of Open No. 164 was a form that the artist had explored before. It may have its origins in Motherwell’s “Beside the Sea” and “Summertime in Italy” series of the 1960s, series that often feature variations on this calligraphic shape. The arch-like shape also appears in Motherwell’s Cathedral collages. The artist’s art historical influences for the Opens Series are diverse, ranging from Monet’s seascape studies to Le Corbusier’s design for the roofline of his Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp.

Motherwell’s Open paintings are situated within a context of Modernist artists’ explorations of windows as a theme. Open windows were a preoccupation of the late 19th Century French Post-Impressionist artists known as Les Nabis and of the Fauves. “Apertures were important for those groups of artists and individual painters whom [Motherwell] admired, including the early German Romantics, Matisse, Bonnard, Mondrian, and Picasso, who have each explored the theme of the window and its close relation, the French door, in their art. At an early point in his career, Motherwell was consciously aware of this abiding theme in modern art; he… [was] fascinated in the 1940s with the problem of the French door in twentieth-century painting and discussed the pros and cons of its development in the work of Picasso and Matisse” (R. Hobbs, "Motherwell's Open: Heidegger, Mallarmé, and Zen," in M. Collings, et al, Robert Motherwell: Open, London, 2009, p. 64).

Motherwell was a major presence on the American art scene for nearly 50 years and at the time of his death was one of the last giants of the Abstract Expressionist movement. His work expressed not only his literary and philosophical concerns and his deep involvement with the culture of Mediterranean Europe, but ultimately the expressive power of paint.

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