“I would like my paintings to have a surface that is not just lovely or seductive, but that glows, the way certain human beings radiate life under that beautiful skin.” Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell was a cerebral artist, having studied philosophy at Stanford and Harvard, and maintaining a life-long interest in the subject. But he was also an artist keenly attuned to the sensuous, physical world. This dual aspect of his nature is evident in California Window, a work which fascinates through its embrace of both painterly abstraction and conceptualism. It is a canvas of significant size, but what captures the viewer’s gaze is less the size of the canvas than it is two unusual features that define the work. The first is the irresistible, luminous and vivid, reverberating and pulsing red color field that occupies the entire surface from edge to edge, exerting a powerful and insistent optical force. “I would like my paintings to have a surface that is not just lovely or seductive, but that glows, the way certain human beings radiate life under that beautiful skin,” Motherwell once remarked. (R. Motherwell, et al, Robert Motherwell, New York, 1983, p. 15). In part, the vitality of California Window’s red field arises from the fact that it is constructed from brushwork of varying densities, the tonalities lighter and the application of paint thinner in some areas, while darker-toned, more saturated, and of a denser application in others. The red color is of a particularly warm and intense hue, one closely associated with Motherwell’s art. “When Motherwell uses certain colors, they are always associated in his own mind with specific sense impressions…Red: memories of Mexico; The Red Studio by Matisse; blood and duende, folk art.” (R. Motherwell, et al, Robert Motherwell, New York, 1983, p. 35).
The intriguing nature of California Window’s color field suggests a physical space that extends infinitely, seeming to suggest a reality existing beyond the edges of the canvas, the painting not distinct from the world, but rather a part of it. At the same time, the painting always retains its nature as a painterly surface, never falling into the character of an illusion, never hiding its nature as a painting. The canvas projects a strongly frontal, rectilinear, and architectural appearance. “In Mexico, in the old days, they built the four walls of a house solid, without windows or doors, beautifully proportioned, out of the solid adobe wall. There is something in me that responds to that, to the stark beauty of dividing a flat solid plane,” Motherwell observed, hinting at one of the sources for paintings such as California Window. (R. Motherwell, et al, Robert Motherwell, New York, 1983. p. 15). Of note regarding California Window and comparable works the artist created during this period is that the composition is extreme in its economy of construction, but offers infinite potential for variation, finding infinite possibilities within the strictly defined limits of the concept.
The second essential feature of California Window that captures the viewer’s attention is the charcoal rectangle occupying the top center portion of the canvas. Resting above–or perhaps ensconced inside–this feature projects downward from the top border of the canvas, ending at about the center of the painting. As does the color field, the rectangle seems not to end with the top boundary of the canvas, but rather to continue past the upper edge of the painting, making the point that a painting is not a self-contained surface but instead a part of the larger world. The lines constituting the rectangle, although straight and geometric, are clearly rendered by hand just as is the brushwork making up the color field. Robert Motherwell’s California Window presents a rectangle within a second, larger rectangle, suggesting to the viewer the appearance of a window within a wall. That the “window” is clearly a hand-drawn shape makes it impossible to matter-of-factly see the painting as simply a straightforward illusion of a physical space. Motherwell is here enjoying—and coaxing viewers, as well, to enjoy—a type of close observation that looks to explore the very nature of abstraction and representation.
The question as to whether the “window” of California Window opens onto another space, or rather onto nothing but itself, begins to hint at the intriguing philosophical and aesthetic conundrum of this work. The current lot is part of a significant late career body of paintings that the artist began in the late 1960s and continued through the 1970s and into the 1980s. These works by one of the towering figures of 20th century abstract painting evoke the appearance of windows, gateways, or portals. But they do so in a highly unconventional way, distinct from realism and even from strategies of abstract painting pursued by Motherwell’s fellow abstract painters. They allowed Motherwell the opportunity to pursue both the sensuous and philosophical meanings of painterly abstraction and, indeed, the very nature of representation itself in painting.
Walls and windows emerged as an important part of Motherwell’s work beginning in the early 1940s, significantly with “The Little Spanish Prison,” and “Spanish Picture with Window.” Motherwell’s paintings are situated within a context of Modernist artists’ explorations of windows as a theme. Open windows were a major theme of the late 19th Century French Post-Impressionist artists known as Les Nabis and of the Fauves. “Apertures were important for those groups of artists and individual painters whom [Motherwell] admired, including the early German Romantics, Matisse, Bonnard, Mondrian, and Picasso, who have each explored the theme of the window and its close relation, the French door, in their art. At an early point in his career, Motherwell was consciously aware of this abiding theme in modem art; he remembers that both the surrealist Matta Echaurren and he were fascinated in the 1940s with the problem of the French door in twentieth-century painting and discussed the pros and cons of its development in the work of Picasso and Matisse” (R. Hobbs, "Motherwell's Open: Heidegger, Mallarmé, and Zen," in M. Collings, et al, Robert Motherwell: Open, London, 2009, p. 64). Increasingly, critics and art historians are considering Motherwell’s late-career canvases depicting windows and openings to be among the most important works of his career. Motherwell explored the themes and possibilities of California Window and comparable works with a focus, passion, and intensity that rivals his efforts painting the great Elegy to the Spanish Republic series. California Window is thrilling both as pure visual experience and as philosophical meditation on the human perception of nature and space.