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The Great Wall of China No. 2

The Great Wall of China No. 2
signed with the artist's initials and dated 'RM 71' (lower left); incised with the artist's initials and date 'RM 71' (lower left); signed again, titled and dated again '"The Great Wall of China #2" R. Motherwell Aug 1971' (on the reverse)
acrylic and charcoal on canvas
84 x 42 (213.4 x 106.7 cm.)
Executed in 1971-1983.
Private collection, 1988
Mark Borghi Fine Art, Inc., New York
Aracture Fine Art, Palm Beach, 2007
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2012
J. Flam, K. Rogers and T. Clifford, Robert Motherwell, Paintings and Collages, A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991, Volume Two: Paintings on Canvas and Panel, New Haven and London, 2012, p. 319, no. P615 (illustrated).
Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, Robert Motherwell: Recent Paintings, June-August 1972, no. 6 (exhibited in an early state).
New York, Knoedler & Company, Robert Motherwell: The Summer 1987 Collage Series; ''The Red and Black'' and Other Unexhibited Works, April 1988, no. 1.

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Lot Essay

Robert Motherwell’s The Great Wall of China No. 2 is the most multifaceted work in the series of four canvases, depicting versatility in palette and stroke. Motherwell spent more than a decade working on the piece, beginning in 1971 and from 1979 to 1983, reworking the lower right quadrant relentlessly, changing the tone from ochre to red to yellow to dark ochre, and landing on a final tone close to his original 1971 color. Motherwell’s bold use of tone and the title of the piece lend themselves to a myriad of associations; the rich ginger and ochre hues are reminiscent of the ancient Spice Trade or laid brick. His detailed attention to this piece highlights its importance, and, as The Great Wall of China No. 1 was later painted over and retitled, the present work, The Great Wall of China No. 2, can be considered the first and most ambitious in the series.
Motherwell, like many Abstract Expressionists among him, was inspired by the Symbolist poet Mallarmé’s premise that a poem should convey the emotive essence of an object or idea rather than its explicit form. Following this interest, Motherwell referred to Kafka’s story “The Great Wall of China” as inspiration for his powerful The Great Wall of China series. In Kafka’s short story, the piecemeal construction of the Great Wall of China is a metaphor for humankind’s desire for a common ideal and its faith in a higher power’s instructions. The Great Wall of China stands as a physical record and symbol of this desire and of the satisfaction and meaning achieved from accomplishment. Similarly, Motherwell’s The Great Wall of China No. 2 is a record of the artist’s work built upon the past and created throughout time. The formal and deeply seated humanistic concerns are reminiscent of the artist’s ground-breaking Elegies to the Spanish Republic. In a similar nod to political affairs, Motherwell’s Great Wall of China series may additionally refer to Henry Kissinger’s visit to China in 1971, which paved the way for Richard Nixon’s historic visit the following February. The complexity of The Great Wall of China No. 2 is depicted in Motherwell’s portrayal of a wide range of ideological and aesthetic considerations.

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