Robert Motherwell’s Oaxaca is a bold display a confidence in color, gestural automatism, and collaged forms that was not present in his earliest collaged works. The artist’s collages were the preliminary stepping stone—essential to the development of his canvas works, even if laden with blatant struggles in composition and in color. The introduction to collage gave Motherwell the ability to experiment with a medium that dried faster than oil paint, and represented the world without literally illustrating it.
In 1941, Motherwell left school and embarked on a journey with his friend, Roberto Matta, into Taxco, Mexico. Here he spent six months painting and struggling to obtain his own voice, or achieve some sort of unique perspective. Through Matta, Robert Motherwell was first introduced to Peggy Guggenheim who, in 1943, invited him to participate in her Exhibition of Collage. This invitation was extended to several abstract expressionist painters including Jackson Pollock and William Baziotes, none of whom were familiar with the art of collaging. Neither Pollock nor Baziotes decided to take anything from this exercise, but for Motherwell, this exhibition marked an exciting turn of direction for his artwork, even attracting public attention and his first museum purchase. With Matta’s encouragement, Motherwell made more collages. These collages then formed the vocabulary for Motherwell’s subsequent works of art.
Thirty years down the line, Robert Motherwell’s use of color to evoke experience is visible through the reds, pinks, whites, blacks, purples, and even the small specks of blue peeking through from under the surface of Oaxaca. According to Motherwell, he associates these colors with Mexican folk art. The gestural brushstrokes incorporate Motherwell’s love of paint with his fascination with the torn paper edge. Oaxaca sets itself apart from Motherwell’s earlier works in his evident control of his mediums without sacrificing raw, uninhibited expression. Rather than filling the picture plane with dark washes and cut paper and violent splashes of color, Motherwell here displays maturity in his minimal abstract composition, bearing distinct influence and similarities to Pablo Picasso’s paper collage, Violin with sheet of music. Similar to the manner in which Picasso does not naturalistically represent a violin in his collage, but instead uses a ready-made sheet of music to imply the sounds the instrument might make, Motherwell also avoids the naturalistic expression in favor of more subtle color symbolism. Yet, the burst of black strokes activate the collaged plane in sudden, dynamic energy and agitation.
“A picture is a deliberate choice of a certain degree of abstraction,” he once said. “Once one can get over one’s inherited primitive feeling that what a picture is is a picture of something in nature and thinks instead that a picture is a deliberate choice of a certain degree of abstraction... then one begins to view painting in an entirely different way” (“On the Humanism of Abstraction,” 6 February 1970, quoted in T. Terenzio, ed., The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, New York, 1992, p. 176).