Rarely has the open field and the single image resonated with such force and intensity. Three lines—two irregular vertical, one horizontal—slightly off-center define a soft wash of allover orange acrylic coloration. Yet the seemingly restrictive nature of medium and mark—simply charcoal and pigment—releases rather than withholds expressive potential. Stillness emerges from activity. For one sees vestiges of the painterly hand in the horizontal line and the hint of roiled surface in the relative densities that cause the field of orange to flicker. Robert Motherwell’s aesthetic sensibilities formed at the height of abstract expressionistic painting in New York, such as leaving the trace of the artist’s presence on the surface, would be palpable no matter the reduction of image and means. Reduced, not emptied, this work is a complete statement in and of itself. “[The first ‘Open’ made in 1967] was a picture in itself, a lovely painted surface plane, beautifully, if minimally, divided, which is what drawing is” (R. Motherwell, in H. H. Arnason, Robert Motherwell, New York, 1977, revised edition 1982, p. 229).
Untitled (In Orange with Charcoal Lines) belongs to a series of works that came to be called the Opens, so named for the seemingly unresolved open field and image that they inevitably feature. In these works, Motherwell distributes over the surface the discrete elements with which he constructed his paintings, the rectilinear outline of an easel picture and the limitless area that forms its ground. The impulse to reduce and in a sense, clean out the canvas derived, as so often happens, from accident. Leaning a finished canvas against a larger yellow-ochre picture, the proportion of smaller work to larger struck Motherwell as exquisitely graceful and uncluttered. This was in contrast to the series of Elegies for which Motherwell is justly famous. Those pictures, in contrast, fill with large, bilious, billowing abstract black biomorphic statements. Opens, on the other hand, reverse the relationship between figure and ground, the ground gaining in visibility, the figure reduced to a partial geometric shape. Tracing the bounding edge of the smaller picture onto the larger frame, Motherwell created an approximation of a “door—a very abstract one” (R. Motherwell, in “Motherwell: On His Works in the MoMA Collection,” March 18, 1969, unpublished, in J. Flam, “A Convergence of Chance and History,” in Motherwell 100 Years, Milan, 2015, p. 177, n. 2).
Thoughtfully, sensitively, Motherwell adjusted his abstract “door” by shifting its orientation so that it described a “U” shape, and it was in this way that the Opens became a series, as Motherwell dug into the problem—and the joy—of “dividing space.” The notion of a pristine surface being despoiled by line is a notion that is deeply rooted in Motherwell’s approach to drawing. By carving space, “dividing it,” to use his terms, with these “U’s” or “windows,” Motherwell creates a paradox: the “window” opens onto opaqueness; the space is compressed and flattened in the act of dividing it. One rectangular “U” shape produced the next, and before he knew it, Motherwell was immersed in the process of creating more, but not in any way that was systematic or serial.
Modernist artists from earlier in the 20th century laid down extraordinary precedents. One has only to recall the line drawings of Matisse or Joan Miró’s Bleu II, created in 1961, to understand the beauty that inheres in an open space filled minimally. Josef Albers series of Homage to the Square, in which Albers demonstrates how visual perception is contingent on color context, is a nearer example of format, window-like, that treats color and figuration abstractly. Like Albers, Motherwell sought the fullest expression within these limited parameters, seeing infinite possibilities as variations of orientation, form, and color. Whether responding to modernist artists or to the younger generation of minimalists, Motherwell painted from a deep belief in the expressive potential of color and line. He also believed in the painterly hand. These values, what seemed almost like moral obligations to this artist, are abundantly on view in Untitled (In Orange with Charcoal Lines), a work of breathtaking emotional fullness through the still sparseness of form and color. It is clear in the present work that Motherwell continued to engage “with the surface of the world as sense, the domain of the sensuous… miraculously imbued with feeling, too” (M. Motherwell, in talk at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, January 13, 1970 and I. Lebeer, “Robert Motherwell,” Chronique de l’art vivant, no. 22 (July-August 1971): 10-12, in J. Flam, ibid.).