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Property from a Private Collection

Elegy Study

Elegy Study
signed with the artist's initials 'RM' (lower right)
acrylic and graphite on paper
7 x 10 ¼ in. (17.8 x 25.7 cm.)
Executed circa 1968.
Private collection
Dominique Lévy Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
J. Flam, K. Rogers and T. Clifford, Robert Motherwell, Paintings and Collages, A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991, Volume Three: Collages and Paintings on Paper and Paperboard, New Haven and London, 2012, p. 517, no. W271 (illustrated).
New York, Dominique Lévy Gallery, Robert Motherwell: Elegy to the Spanish Republic, November 2015–January 2016, pp. 83-85, no. 17 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

"What had started out as a little decoration for a poem yielded one of Motherwell’s richest veins of imagery. He invented a specific kind of image, as a poet may be said to invent a particular poetic form … It provided him with a language that, like notes on the musical scale, was limited but which could produce enormously varied effects."
—(J. Flam, "Paintings, 1948-1958: Elegies to the Spanish Republic", in J. Flam, K. Rogers and T. Clifford, eds., Robert Motherwell: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991, vol. 1, Verona, 2012, p. 75)

With its dense, black notation of bands and ovals, spread across the picture plane in haunting rhythmic succession, Elegy Study is a jewel-like work from Robert Motherwell’s most celebrated series of works. Executed with rich, gestural brushstrokes, contrasting dense monolithic slabs of pigment with graphite pentimenti, the work quivers with raw painterly tension. Among the most iconic products of Abstract Expressionism, the Elegies represent a constant in Motherwell’s career, defined by the systematic monochrome repetition of linear and ovular motifs. Conceived as a set of memorials for those who died during the Spanish Civil War—the tragic conflict that famously inspired Pablo Picasso’s Guernica—the Elegies represent deeply poetic tributes to human suffering, symbolizing the cycle of life and death through their dirge-like juxtaposition of black and white.
Motherwell’s Elegies initially evolved from an illustration that the artist made to accompany Harold Rosenberg’s poem The Bird for Every Bird, published in the second issue of the art journal Possibilities in 1948. Created using automatic drawing techniques he had learned from Robert Matta, the illustration comprised three ovoid shapes crushed between three vertical shafts. Initiating the basic vocabulary that would go on to define the series, Motherwell retrospectively acknowledged the work as his first Elegy. Knowing that the journal would be printed in black and white, the artist deliberately limited himself to black ink, despite his credentials as a colorist. Though the publication never went ahead, Motherwell was so intrigued by his abstract pattern of monochrome bands and ellipses that he continued to explore this motif. The Elegies would permeate much of his work for the next two decades and works from the series, such as the present lot, belong to what is often considered to be the artist's magnum opus.

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