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The Red Wall

The Red Wall
signed with the artist's initials and dated 'RM 72' (upper right); signed again and dated again 'Robert Motherwell 30 July 1972' (on the reverse)
acrylic and charcoal on canvas
72 x 72 in. (182.9 x 182.9 cm.)
Executed in 1972.
Galerie André Emmerich, Zurich
Acquired from the above by the late owner, 1976
M. Staber, "Robert Motherwell", in Kunstforum International, no. 12, December 1974-January 1975, p.115 (illustrated).
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. 338, no. P660 (illustrated).
Zurich, Galerie André Emmerich, Robert Motherwell: New Paintings, Collages, and Graphics, October-November 1974, n.p. (illustrated).
Special notice
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.

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Lot Essay

Painted in 1972, Robert Motherwell’s, The Red Wall, represents a moment of solid footing at the crest of his Open series, which was a radical change in the artist’s practice. Five years prior, while working in his studio, Motherwell was struck by the shape of a smaller canvas propped against a larger one. The artist outlined the shape of the smaller canvas in charcoal against the latter, and in doing so, sparked a new series of work that would define the next decade of his career. The Open series, as it came to be known, “began as a ‘door,” and then “ultimately reversed into a ‘window.’” (Robert Motherwell, “Statement of the Open Series”, 1969, in The Writings of Robert Motherwell). Characterized by an interplay between wide expanses of loosely brushed color and sharp, gestural line, the Open paintings defied the conventions of their Color Field counterparts in their clear associations with space.
The pictorial space of The Red Wall is built up with multiple layers of red, creating a sense of depth to what could otherwise be appraised as flat. This expansive ground is carved into by a series of black and green lines in the upper register that gesture at the form of a window, not fully representational, but an element that dislodges the composition from pure abstraction. The Red Wall is among great company as an abstract painting galvanized by the color red. Barnett Newman’s, Vir Heroicus Sublimis, for example, employs red alongside heroic scale to create a dramatic sense of urgency. Mark Rothko’s oeuvre could fill several rooms with his own meditations on the emotional impact of the color. However, where the abstract expressionists were more so allowing the material of color to elicit a pure response, in this phase of his work Motherwell attached his red to the associations of a wall, a sense of space and place-hood.
The dichotomy between window and wall is one that developed in tandem with the Open forms themselves. The artist retroactively aligned these paintings with Henri Matisse’s window paintings, particularly Porte-fenêtre à Collioure, 1914. Motherwell first encountered this painting in Pierre Matisse’s apartment around 1960, just before it gained any real public audience. He saw it once more alongside The View of Notre Dame, 1914, at The Museum of Modern Art’s 1966 retrospective of Matisse, a year before the concept for the Opens fully sparked to life.
Though the theme of interiors with open windows is commonplace in the canon of art history, Matisse was a veritable champion of the genre for the fauves. His earlier 1905 version of Porte-fenêtre à Collioure, can be considered a rich soil by which the fauvist treatment of the subject flourished. The shocking color palette, the attachment to landscape and place-hood, these are all elements shared with The Red Wall. When Matisse revisits the subject nine years later, it is perhaps the most abstract the artist will ever get, with four thick grounds of paint shouldering the representation of a window scene. This staggering shift towards an essentialist approach pushed representation to the outer edge of abstraction. In many ways, Motherwell’s The Red Wall poses the answer. As H. H. Arnason asserts, “If Matisse’s experiment had been continued to actual abstraction it is not inconceivable that he would have arrived at something similar to Motherwell’s Opens.” (H. H. Arnason, “Robert Motherwell: The Work,” Robert Motherwell: Second Edition, New and Revised, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, New York. pg. 72.).
While the fauves weren’t consciously invoked in the inception of the Open paintings, Motherwell himself conceded the appropriateness of their association. The fauvist consideration of color is a direct predecessor to that of the color field painters, but theirs was not a free association with color, rather using it deliberately in dialogue with form. Motherwell’s evocation of the window perched on the wall makes the direct association between his choice of color and space. In The Red Wall, the color red is more a guided meditation; a wall indicating a room, a window indicating a space beyond, and the color of red accented by green conjuring a mood.
Beyond the abstraction itself, what Motherwell does with The Red Wall, and with the Open series more broadly, is completely reorient what it means to represent space. As Arneson notes, “Motherwell has written somewhere that the domain of painting is the “skin of the world.” In Opens, he not only painted some ravishingly subtle skins, radiant in color, but also he carried the window theme to its stunning logical conclusion: that inside and outside are one.” (H. H. Arnason, “Robert Motherwell: The Work,” Robert Motherwell: Second Edition, New and Revised, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, New York. pg. 78.) In many ways, The Red Wall is as much a title of the work as the condition of its display, marking any wall that it is hung on itself a ‘red wall.’ Though we may imagine the window motif to be a portal into the outside world, it only reveals more red, such that looking through it may be looking into a room of more red walls.

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