Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)
Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)

Automatic Oracle

Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)
Automatic Oracle
signed and dated 'R. Motherwell 1989' (lower right); signed again and dated again 'R. Motherwell 1989' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
96 x 60 in. (243.8 x 152.4 cm.)
Painted in 1988-1989.
Knoedler & Company, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1990
J. Flam, K. Rogers and T. Clifford, eds., Robert Motherwell, Paintings and Collages, A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991, Volume Two: Paintings on Canvas and Panel, New Haven and London, 2012, p. 558, no. P1168 (illustrated).
New York, Knoedler & Company, Robert Motherwell: New Work, April-May 1989, no. 1.

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Joanna Szymkowiak
Joanna Szymkowiak

Lot Essay

“…in my opinion he was the very best of the Abstract Expressionist painters”—Clement Greenberg

(C. Greenberg, quoted by G. Glueck, “Robert Motherwell, Master of Abstract, Dies,” The New York Times, July 18, 1991).

Automatic Oracle is a majestic canvas painted during a remarkable burst of creative energy and painterly activity which occurred during the last years of Robert Motherwell’s life. The artist’s robust brushwork and accomplished composition are the result of a lifetime of painterly prowess, the artist having been one of the longest surviving members from the first generation of Abstract Expressionist painters including Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Motherwell builds up his active surface by laying down layer upon layer of acrylic washes; dark earthen tones providing a foundation for an upper layer of warm sienna and golden yellow that envelops the core of the painting. The composition of this 1988-89 painting is closely related to Two Figures, a much earlier work from the late ‘50s painted around the time of the artist’s marriage to Helen Frankenthaler—part of a seminal series which is closely associated with the two artists.

The eight by five feet canvas that is Automatic Oracle contains all of the key motifs which Motherwell spent a lifetime perfecting; brushwork that evidences the physical effort of painting; an approach to painting that valued process (including allowing the intrinsic qualities of paint as playing a vital part in the making of the work); the vibrant colors set in contrast with the deepest of black pigment (Motherwell’s signature ochres, white shadings, yellows, set against inky blacks), bold gestural brushstrokes and broad expanses of canvas that suggest the open physical space of landscape. Also present here is the juxtaposition of straight lines against curves that as a draughtsman he relished.

The title of the painting may have been derived from a collection of poetry by Peter Porter, an Australian-born poet, critic and translator and published in 1987—the year before the present work was painted. Some of the themes addressed by Porter’s poems included language, childhood, dreams and, appropriately enough for Motherwell, painting. The “oracle” of Porter’s title was a reference to the English language and the many and complex uses of language was of interest to Motherwell, who had an advanced degree in philosophy and was famous for being well-read.

Perhaps the word “automatic” resonated for Motherwell, too, given his interest in automatism, an approach to drawing that attempted to tap the unconscious as a source of inspiration, and which Motherwell learned from the Chilean Surrealist artist Matta. "You let the brush take over and in a way follow its own head,” Motherwell once said, “and in the brush doing what it's doing, it will stumble on what one couldn't by oneself… "It's essential to fracture influences in the same way that free association in psychoanalysis helps to fracture one's social self-deceptions…” Motherwell commented in regard to automatic drawing (G. Glueck, “Robert Motherwell, Master of Abstract, Dies,” New York Times, July 18, 1991).

Motherwell once remarked that his paintings must have ''immediacy, passion or tenderness; beingness, as such, detachment, sheer presence as a modulation of the flat picture plane, true invention and search, light, an unexpected end, mainly warm earth colors and black and white, a certain stalwartness'' (G. Glueck, “The Mastery of Robert Motherwell,” The New York Times, December 2, 1984). If each and every one of those elements are not present in each one of his paintings, certainly the list suggests what Motherwell strove to include.

Like his monumental canvases, Motherwell has become a towering influence in 20th century American art. He was the artist who coined the term “The School of New York” and was one of its charter members, a figure who became synonymous with the name and he even came to outlast them all. Although one of the last large-scale canvases that the artist ever produced its dynamic surface shows no sign of him slowing down. Indeed it can be said to live up to the praise of that champion of mid-century American painting Clement Greenberg who said simply, “…in my opinion he was the very best of the Abstract Expressionist painters” (C. Greenberg, quoted by G. Glueck, “Robert Motherwell, Master of Abstract, Dies,” The New York Times, July 18, 1991).

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