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

Open No. 81: In Blue with Charcoal Line

Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)
Open No. 81: In Blue with Charcoal Line
signed with the artist's initials and dated 'RM 69' (upper right); signed again, titled and dated again 'R. Motherwell Summer, 1969 "OPEN #81"' (on the reverse)
acrylic and charcoal on canvas
72 1/8 x 42 in. (183.1 x 106.6 cm.)
Painted in 1969-1972.
A.J. Pyrch, Edmonton, acquired directly from the artist, 1972
Waddington & Shields Gallery, Toronto
Private collection, New York
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 20 February 1988, lot 41
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, p. 258, no. P472 (illustrated).

Lot Essay

This monumental canvas by Robert Motherwell brings together the languages of Minimalism, Abstract Expressionism, and even traces of Conceptual Art in a spectacular painting from one of the artist’s most significant bodies of work, his extraordinary Open series.

Measuring six feet in height and with an imposing air of authority, Motherwell’s Open No. 81: In Blue with Charcoal Line projects a vivid presence, both in its physical dimensions and through its alluring choice of color. Its many rich blue passages evoke the artist’s inspirations: the chromatic palette of Henri Matisse, the blue of the Mediterranean Sea, even the tonality of the iconic Gauloises cigarette package design that Motherwell included in the collaged work he created during this important period.

The composition conveys a strongly frontal, rectilinear, and almost architectural appearance, organized around a variegated blue field subdivided by black lines traced in an expressive hand. The lines, although mostly straight and even, suggest the improvisatory feel of borders manually traced, as does the brushwork making up the larger all-over color expanse. The tonal field covering the surface is richly-toned, its textured painting defined all over by sweeping, vertical brushstrokes. Motherwell developed the canvas’s active surface through the application of varying thicknesses and densities of paint, the brushstrokes flowing across the canvas in vigorous waves. The colors are lighter and the application of paint more diaphanous in some areas, while darker-toned, more saturated and denser applications abound in others, all determined by the pressure of the artist’s hand. Diverse shadings of blue—from sky blue, to gray-blue to almost purple tonalities—merge, blend, diverge, and reside in parallel all along the painting’s surface. Throughout, the work retains the essential quality of the gesture, as Motherwell explores the essential elements of line and color rather than entering the pure territory of Minimalism itself.

Suggestive of windows, doorways, or double-paned French doors, the metaphor of openings and apertures invites the viewer into and through the painted surface, toward a blue and seemingly infinite field of sky, just as actual windows offer viewers a vista outward. Motherwell’s Open series evokes the appearance of windows, gateways, or doors, but in a highly unconventional way, distinct from realism and even from strategies of abstract painting pursued by Motherwell’s fellow Abstract Expressionists. The series gave Motherwell the opportunity to explore both the sensuousness of the painted surface and the very nature of representation itself.

One of the extraordinary aspects of this work is its ability to enthrall the viewer with its beautifully-painted surface, while at the same time drawing us outward, past its skin to realities beyond. The boundaries of the canvas define its physical dimensions, which are, of course, finite. But the open, expansive feeling of the composition suggests boundlessness, infinity, and great depth of feeling.

That the “windows” or “doors” of this painting are clearly drawn shapes makes it impossible to see this complex and multidimensional painting as simply a straightforward illusion meant to depict some physical space. In this painting Motherwell is clearly enjoying—and coaxing viewers, as well to enjoy—a type of close observation that looks to explore the very nature of abstraction and representation.

Motherwell’s work in this painting and in his entire Opens series illustrate how expansive indeed was his vision. These were a bold move by an artist at mid-career setting off in a new direction from the painterly language that had earlier made his reputation; one critic describing the series as “painted plane(s) beautifully divided by minimal means, the essence of line drawing. …(T)hrough these works Motherwell relished “the viscosity of paint, of color fields, of the skin of the world highly abstracted” (G. Glueck, “Robert Motherwell, Master of Abstract, Dies,” New York Times, July 18, 1991).

In this work Motherwell investigated ideas from the creations of the great 19th and early 20th century artists who preceded him, together with those of a younger generation of artists who emerged in the 1960s and pursued the styles of Minimalism, Color-Field Painting, and Conceptualism. Motherwell’s Open paintings reside within the larger context of Modernist artists’ explorations of windows as a theme. Open windows were a preoccupation of the 19th Century French Post-Impressionist artists known as Les Nabis and of the Fauves. One painting which had a particular effect on Motherwell was Matisse’s View of Notre Dame (Museum of Modern Art, New York), painted in the spring of 1914. Writing in Motherwell’s catalogue raisonné, alongside an illustration of the French artist’s masterpiece, Jack Flam notes “The relationship between some of the Opens and Matisse’s View of Notre Dame is striking, in terms of dialogue between drawn line and loosely brushed field of color, and even in the way the exquisite brushstroke in the ground is able to call forth so much luminosity and so much chromatic richness from the blues” (J. Flam, “Paintings, 1967-1974: Opens and Signs,” in J. Flam, K. Rogers & T. Clifford, Robert Motherwell Paintings and Collages: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941 1991, New Haven, 2012, p. 134).

Open No. 81: In Blue with Charcoal Line showcases 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, and as such critics and art historians are increasingly considering Motherwell’s Opens Series canvases to be among the most important works of his career.

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