Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)
Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)
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Property from the Museum Liaunig
Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)

Open White and Black

Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)
Open White and Black
signed and dated 'Motherwell 69' (upper right)
acrylic and charcoal on canvas
88 1/8 x 121 ½ in. (223.8 x 308.6 cm.)
Painted in 1969.
Dedalus Foundation, New York, 1991
Knoedler & Company, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2001
M. Pleynet, “Peinture et poésie ou la leçon de Robert Motherwell,” Art Press, no. 19, 1975, p. 8 (illustrated).
D. Ashton, “Robert Motherwell,” Flash Art, no. 100, November 1980, p. 7 (illustrated).
Museum Liaunig, Zeitgenössische Kunst, Neuhaus, 2008, p. 297 (illustrated).
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. 277, no. P507 (illustrated).
J. Flam, K. Rogers and T. Clifford, Motherwell: 100 Years, Milan, 2015, pp. 221 and 223, no. 215 (illustrated).
Museum Liaunig: An Austrian Collector's Museum, Munich, 2018, p. 69 (illustrated).
Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Caracas, David Smith/Robert Motherwell, May 1979, no. 3 (illustrated).
Neuhaus, Museum Liaunig, Tradition und Avantgarde, May-October 2010.
Neuhaus, Museum Liaunig, Von der Fläche zum Raum, April-October 2013, pp. 11 and 31 (installation view illustrated).
Neuhaus, Museum Liaunig, Umrahmung schräg gekippt – Die Sammlung Liaunig in Bewegung, April-October 2018.

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Rachael White
Rachael White

Lot Essay

Painted in 1969, Open White and Black is part of a radically new cycle of paintings that Robert Motherwell began to develop in 1967. Known as his Open series, these works mark a distinct departure from the type of abstract painting pursued by Motherwell’s fellow first generation Abstract Expressionists. Form and color become the principal focus of this composition, with the black lines—although resolutely applied by hand—remaining straight and even throughout. Motherwell does, however, include an element of improvisatory brushwork into the otherwise invariable, soft tone of the present canvas: traces of pure white paint are added in vigorous, horizontal brushstrokes around the central rectangular motif. The application of white paint varies in thickness and density of the paint, seemingly guided by the pressure of the artist’s hand at a given moment in time.
Motherwell, like many artists of his generation, was trained in the rigors and philosophies of automatism. By returning to a set of definitive, allegorical forms time and time again, the artist continuously explored the delicate balance between emotional authenticity and the power of abstract formalism. What sets the Open series apart from his earlier oeuvre is its cerebral character, fuelled by metaphysical theories: these carefully constructed compositions engage with the subtle dualities of the interior and exterior world, and with the perceptions of nature and space. Simultaneously stern yet aesthetically rich, Open White and Black grapples with the visual as well as emotional possibilities of a purposefully circumscribed step of forms, with the artist aiming to produce an austere, monumental composition whose inherent artistic significance would enable it to become exempt from the obligation of being merely aesthetically pleasing.
Contemplating philosophical questions around the notion of perception and reality, Open White and Black presents an amalgamation of ideas devised by the artists who preceded Motherwell, together with those of a younger generation who emerged in the 1960s to pursue the styles of Minimalism, Color-Field Painting and Conceptualism. Developing his Open series, the artist drew inspiration from the climate of Minimalism, led by artists such as Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin and Yayoi Kusama, which dominated the contemporary art world. The monochromatic composition of Open also calls the mind the all-white paintings that Jasper Johns completed almost a decade earlier.
The composition of Open White and Black also alludes to the creative analysis promoted by contemporary formalist critics. Characterized by a sense of austere clarity and a greater degree of flatness in the pictorial plane, this painting correlates directly with Clement Greenberg’s vision of a form of non-representational painting to counteract gestural abstraction. The development of the Open series thus marks a distinct separation from the painterly language that had characterised the artist’s earlier works: the beautifully painted planes of Open White and Black, divided by straight black lines, capture within themselves the essence of line drawing. From the outset, Motherwell sought variation and expressive alternatives within the imposed limitations, and carefully observed the effect this marriage of color and line had on the works he produced.
Ever evolving, Motherwell’s oeuvre remained engaging throughout his prolific career, the monumental canvases of his Open series being considered among the artist’s most important and influential works. Involving geometric divisions, in the form of a three-sided rectangular motif at the top of the canvas, Motherwell’s carefully constructed Open White and Black evokes an idea of a window, a door, or a gateway. Serving as an opening into a metaphysical space which exists beyond the material structure of the artwork, the minimally rendered black lines within this composition draw the beholder into a tranquil and private world, engaging them in a practice of meditation. The present work encourages the beholder to see past its beautifully painted, smooth surface and engage with realities which do not necessarily comply with the rules and logic of a three-parameter model of the physical universe. The tangible boundaries of this monumental canvas are concretely defined by its dimensions; however, the expansive feeling this composition conveys is suggestive of infinitude and vastness. Open White and Black therefore cleverly toys with the beholder’s perception of reality, creating a complex interplay between what is and real what is illusory.
Motherwell devised the metaphor of an aperture into an imaginary landscape directly from the Renaissance model of perspectival picture, within which these spaces were included to offer a quiet space for religious and intellectual contemplation. Henri Matisse’s window imagery was similarly instrumental to development of the Open series: Open Window, Collioure and View of Notre Dame, both painted in 1914, were exhibited for the first time in public at the 1966 MoMA exhibition in New York. Echoes of both are especially prominent in the earliest Open paintings; however, the black lines bisecting the colour field in View of Notre Dame remain a prominent influence throughout Motherwell’s series. Open White and Black evokes in the beholder both a sense of opposition and harmony. As a series, the monumental Open paintings aim to set against emptiness the mark of mankind in a manner similar to pictographs on the walls of prehistoric caves. Constructing artificial gateways between the tangible and intangible through an interchange of colour and form within his compositions, Motherwell cites Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: “famous image of art as the shadow cast on the dark cave’s wall by persons passing by the fire. For Plato, art is an inferior third order of reality (like a shadow), just as an individual person is an inferior second order of reality, as compared to the primary reality of an archetypal, metaphysical person” (R. Motherwell, quoted in J. Fineberg, Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being, London, 2000, p. 72). The assertive spatial ambiguity of these compositions grants the Open series a sense of resonance, requiring of the beholder a deeper level of engagement with the artist’s as well as their own understanding of reality and imagination.
Motherwell’s magnificent Open White and Black is offered from the collection of Museum Liaunig. Located in the southern Austrian landscape of Carinthia and designed by the Viennese architectural team "querkraft”, the museum houses the private collection of Austrian businessman and art collector Herbert W. Liaunig. This carefully curated collection is representative of Mr. Liaunig's broad taste in art, ranging from modern and contemporary artworks to African ceremonial objects. Since its establishment in 2008, Museum Liaunig has been striving to advocate for both national as well as international post-war and contemporary artists such as: Arnulf Rainer, Maria Lassnig, Robert Motherwell, Tony Cragg, and Paul Klee. The museum functions as a cultural centre, offering a multifaceted exhibitions and concerts programme in pursuit of a cross-disciplinary viewing experience. Presenting its historical collection as a counterpoint to contemporary exhibitions, Museum Liaunig stands as an exemplary and forward-thinking institution in today’s art world.

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