"Right there, in the void of abstract painting, where the anxiety of failure shakes an artist and the intensity of success shakes him too, Robert Motherwell introduces the secure and known. The strength of his style comes from his forms. At first, they may appear 'abstract' because they do not represent objects; but they do relate, like feuding cousins, to ideal shapes."
--N. Edgar, "The Satisfactions of Robert Motherwell," ArtNews, October 1975, p. 38.5, p. 38.
The present work dates to a truly formative moment in Robert Motherwell's career. As a student at Columbia University, Motherwell had recently made the acquaintance of the powerful critic Meyer Schapiro. Ultimately, Schapiro helped to shape the artist's blossoming career by steering him away from philosophy and art history to the practice of art-making itself. This gouache, painted in 1940, during Motherwell's first semester at Columbia, was presented to his fellow classmate, Margaret Koons Miller, who cherished it for years.
Also influential to Motherwell during this influential period were a group of European surrealists now living in New York. The Chilean artist Matta Echaurren was key in forming Motherwell's Surrealist vocabulary, and after a trip to Mexico with the artist in 1941, Motherwell decided to move to Greenwich village and permanently devote himself to painting. The influence of Matta is evident in this key work, but also present are the beginnings of an abstract language. Within this small gouache is the formal idiom that would go on to define the abstract language of Motherwell's mature work.
The present work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of paintings and collages being prepared by the Dedalus Foundation in New York.