Conceived towards the end of his Open series, this untitled work (also known as 23 June – 10 August 1972) is an incredibly developed and unique embodiment of Robert Motherwell’s effort to integrate the spontaneous collage aesthetic with implied visual geometry. Motherwell paints three black lines in a U-shaped formation at the top-center of the canvas, forming a structural drawing on the vibrating paint surface. Thus, through Untitled, Motherwell creates a zone of spatial complexity by modulating the amorphous color fields of gestural abstraction.
True to the Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist automatist philosophy, the U shape became a repeated motif within the paintings of Motherwell’s Open series by chance. The initial idea stemmed from a fortuitous placing of a tall, thin canvas over a larger, wider canvas against the wall of his studio in 1967. Motherwell immediately recognized the beautiful proportions of the rectangle on rectangle, and continued expanding on the idea of the delineated plane superimposed over another for over a decade. This combinative approach is analogous to the process by which Motherwell assembled collages. However, rather than aggregating dissimilar pieces into one unified whole, Motherwell deliberately takes a complete whole and ventures with the idea of creating a new object through drawing, painting, and dividing into composite fragments.
Motherwell’s earlier Open paintings were mostly left minimal and fairly monochromatic after visually segmenting out parts of the canvas. With his first painting of the series, Open No. 1: In Yellow Ochre, Motherwell draws a rectangle onto the monochromatic surface of a canvas only to realize that he had no desire to add anything to the composition. However, with further development and experimentation, the paintings became increasingly sophisticated in their use of color and awareness of canvas’s shape and edge. Within Untitled, Motherwell paints a smaller U shape within another U shape. These repeated shapes form the beginnings of a fractal in its continuance of proportional relationship, but also drawing attention the rectangularity and edges of the canvas.
Perhaps inspired by Mark Rothko’s use of translucent layers of paint over other colored backgrounds, Motherwell applies his paint just thick enough to reveal subtle hints of a color beneath. Motherwell’s initials and date of the painting are inscribed into wet paint, revealing underlying brilliant green luminously peeking through from under the right edge of a painterly applied ultramarine blue layer, similar to the way blues peak through the washes of black, white, and wine in Rothko’s 1953 painting, Number 61. Then, in a bold apparent response to the black painted lines that form the inner rectangles of the composition, Motherwell applies two opaque splashes of this green along with a single smear of rosy pink in. These colors start to disintegrate the straight lines in which they are contained, as does the singular diagonal strip of black and grey extending from the bottom left corner of the larger of the two rectangles to the bottom right of the smaller.
Though the U shapes in Untitled give the impression of measured consideration, the proportions by which Motherwell divided up the Open canvases were not mathematically calculated. He instead unites two seemingly contradictory elements. Though geometric, Motherwell stresses that the lines comprising the shape were “purely intuitional and immediate” (R. Motherwell quoted in J. Flam, “Paintings, 1967-1974: Opens and Signs,” New Haven and London, 2012, p. 127). By employing the stream-of-consciousness manner of placing figures within a picture plane—not unlike Miro’s Carnival of Harlequin—shapes, lines, and color are arranged impulsively through feeling.